If I am in a new group or environment and the topic of the Iraq war comes around I always keep my safe stories handy. If you are a Veteran, you know the type: anecdotal humor and aimed at the lighter side of war. Some have more meaningful undertones than others, but those few safe stories that can break the ice and divert the conversation to mundane questions are invaluable for a readjusting Vet. (For the record: Yes, it is hot in Iraq. Yes, it is a dry heat. Yes, it still sucks.)
I highly recommend them, unless they become a crutch.
My Duty as a Soldier
I usually tell this story in the summer with friends at a BBQ. It is my safe story.
When I was a little more than half way through my second trip, my commander took mid-tour leave and I assumed command.
One of the more bizarre crises that developed arose from some Extra Soldiers who were shacking up on our camp and did not fully understand their environment.
We had an excellent perch atop a grain silo on the camp we controlled. The line of site stretched well across the city and it was adjacent to a Shia enclave that appreciated our presence. With thermal optics we could easily see a dog taking a crap a mile away.
The Shias in the town had been on the receiving end of some vicious attacks with car bombs and snipers. As such, they formed a heavily armed militia and barricaded their part of town.
The Extra Soldiers utilizing our facility were in a Sniper nest way up on the grain silo. I don’t know what their mindset was, or if they had been properly briefed. I kind of just assumed by rank and experience they knew where who were the good guys and bad guys. Bad assumption.
On a particularly hot afternoon, the Sniper team saw one of the militia raise a weapon seemingly aimed at a helicopter. Using a suppressed weapon, they shot him dead.
It must have been terrifying for the other militia men with the boy because he received a number of rounds in rapid succession from what must have seemed like out of nowhere. One minute screwing off on “guard duty”, the next minute full of bullets and dead.
I was on patrol at the time and not at the silo. One of my Lieutenants called higher headquarters and briefed them on what happened. The concerned Shia group came over and inquired if we had killed one of their militia.
My Lieutenant, obviously having a slight lapse in upholding the Army values, told them the enemy must have done it. I wish I could have seen the instant he realized what a mistake that lie was.
As the words dribbled out of his mouth and through an interpreter, the Shia group immediately leapt into action. Cell phones started ringing across their compound. Someone was going pay Death Squad style. They were going to drive across town and f#ck some Sunni’s up.
My First Sergeant called me on the radio and requested I come back as an issue was brewing that required my attention. He didn’t want to discuss it over the radio.
“Great.” I thought. Radio discipline generally meant something messy.
I returned to camp and talked to my Lieutenant. I don’t remember the exact conversation we had that well, but I am pretty sure “What the f#ck ever possessed you to think this was a good idea?” came out in some way shape or form.
The Sheik of the Shia group was a gnarly old leathery dude who looked like Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He was a wily old man who knew how to play the US forces like a skilled musician.
The plan I scratched out in my mind was simple: I had to get to him fast, tell him the truth, and hope to avoid sectarian violence or blood revenge against US forces. The heat of the day was passed, but it was still well over 100 degrees.
My crew and I mounted up mounted up. In a single Bradley, I took our senior interpreter, my Bradley crew and a Radio Telephone Operator and drove into their compound.
The hive was busy getting weapons loaded into cars. Men of all ages carrying RPGs, AK’s and bandoliers scurried about preparing for a fight. Everyone looked serious and pissed off.
As the ramp lowered and our interpreter and I looked around, we knew this was not going to be easy.
I am one of the apparently few Americans who despises Watermelon. Taste, texture, and smell all make me nauseous. I wont even go near artificial shit. No lollipops for me. No sir. Please consider that while I finish this story out.
Did I mention the heat earlier? Oh yeah, the heat, a crammed stuffy room full of pissed off Iraqis, me and my interpreter. One solitary fan twirled overhead that provided the equivalent effect of pissing on a 20 acre forest fire.
The Sheik’s lieutenants were all in the room with us. They knew that if I was there under these circumstances it was strictly business. I had to make them understand the gravity, so after a few minutes, I took off my armor and asked the Sheik to kick everyone out of the room.
He was a little surprised, but did as I asked. I was trying to tread carefully to courtesies and customs. I was delivering bad news, I did not want to make it worse.
Once everyone was out of the room, the Sheik decided it was time to eat.
You can see where this is going, right?
From another room a small boy with a large metal bowl walked into our meeting. The contents of the bowl contained an obscene amount of the Iraqi equivalent of watermelon.
As boy placed the bowl in between the Sheik and I, the Sheik reached down with his gnarly hand into the warm bowl, picked up a slimy piece of the vile watermelon and held it out.
I looked at my interpreter and asked “What do I do?” He knew the customs and he simply said, “You eat it. You don’t want to offend him.”
I glared at the interpreter and said “You don’t understand, I can’t eat this.”
He just smiled.
So with that, I reached out, took the fruit and raised it to my mouth. I made an over exaggerated “Mmmmm” sound as I choked back vomit.
Then, I held that sweaty piece of melon and explained to the Sheik that we had actually killed his family member. The Lieutenant was mistaken and we were to blame. There was no need to go across town. The Sunni’s were not responsible for this one.
He thanked me for being honest. I thanked him for telling his men to stand down. We worked out another meeting to discuss a reparation payment for his family member.
I left the smoldering watermelon on the seat. We mounted back up and I went back to base swearing off watermelon for the rest of my days.
I have told that story without crying for years. It is safe. It doesn’t involve much death or gore or stress. It is mildly comedic. I used to tell it to avoid the deeper emotional scars of Iraq.
A few weeks ago I spoke with a man I consider a friend at length about my time in Iraq. It has been years since I was there and yet when we talked the emotion of dealing with loss in Iraq it made me weep. I could have told him the watermelon story cold, but that would be equivocal or dishonest. He asked hard questions and I tried my best to answer.
In one instance he asked me about the first time I lost a Soldier.
Ironically, next week marks seven years since we lost SGT Jacob Simpson. I still cannot talk about him or that day. I still think of him. I still mourn him. I cried when I tried to tell my friend about the loss.
One of the many realizations I have had over the past few weeks is that this is my new normal. I don’t think I will ever fully get over losing him. He is woven into me and in some ways I carry on because of him. I do not take for granted my gift of life. Though some days are harder than others, I remind myself that a piece of him is with me and it is my duty to preserve and honor his memory.
I can rationalize all of this, yet I choke up when I try to articulate with the spoken word how he was a tremendous Soldier. I cannot help but weep at the crater of loss he left. I have dozens of more stories where the grief of loss ties me up.
These are my unsafe stories. They stir emotion and are hard to get through. I made it a goal a while back to cry less and talk more, especially when caught off guard. It is a work in progress, and I have a feeling will be like that for a while. But, the unsafe stories are where the real healing takes place. If you don’t have an unsafe story, I recommend you find someone, and get started.