Ten years ago today, along with all the other men of Echo Battery, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, I left Camp Pendleton on a deployment to Iraq. In retrospect, ten years seems like an awfully long time. Since then, I've left the Marine Corps, moved six times, gained two cats, gotten married, put one cat to sleep, gained two more cats, completed a degree in history, began teaching at a university, lost my dad to cancer, started graduate school, lost my stepdad to a workplace accident, bought a house, made a lifelong dream come true by taking a trip to Russia with my best friend, began a serious effort to write literary poetry, and struggled to stay above water following my wife's most serious recent bouts (yes, plural) with Crohn's disease. The last few weeks have been busy. I haven't had time to reflect about this anniversary in a way that seems at all appropriate or sufficient. That, in itself, is a metaphor for the last decade.
My experience in Iraq remains a fundamental part of how I construct my identity. I try not to be over the top about being an Iraq veteran, or about having served in the Marine Corps. Under normal circumstances, those are not among the first five things I might volunteer about myself to a new acquaintance. But they're there beneath the surface, and they color everything I come into contact with, whether I'm aware of it or not. My closest friends are all veterans themselves, or work closely with the veteran community in Madison. I chose to study US military history as a graduate student in part because I want to understand my experiences in Iraq in context with other wars. I'm particularly interested in civil-military relations because I want to understand the dynamics of how our society shapes and controls our military, and how it understands (or doesn't understand) military service. I get very agitated sitting in traffic because I'm still waiting for the VBIED with my name on it. I have trouble running a day full of errands because I wear myself out mentally scanning people and locations for threats. I jump and shout when my wife accidentally appears behind me while I'm in the middle of doing the dishes. I cringe when the F-16s fly over our house. Iraq's still there. I've carried it around for ten years, and I'll carry it around for however many I have left.
When we left California that Thursday, one of the Marines in Echo didn't know he had less than a month left. I didn't know Casper very well. We were on the occasional working party together prior to and during the first month of our deployment, but we didn't socialize much otherwise. I was attached to Echo for the deployment and still getting to know people when he was killed. In a sense, it's strange that I've spent so much time thinking about Casper in the ten years since. I go to his memorial page and see messages from guys in Echo who knew him much better. There's a message as recent as a few months ago. Oft-repeated are sentiments like:
I wonder why the death of a guy I didn't know very well has stuck with me so long. I feel as though I have no claim on his memory, and yet, I remember him. Mostly, because his face has grown fuzzy in my memory over the years, I remember how warm and friendly he was to the new guy on those working parties. And I think about his stolen potential. I think of him whenever I get to do something he never had the chance to do himself. Many of my students are older than Casper ever lived to be. I think about that, too. Casper was twenty when he died. I turned twenty-two on that deployment to Iraq. I hope I have many years and birthdays left. For Casper, it will always be 2004 and twenty.
The night before our deployment began, I wrote on the blog I kept at the time:
I'm not happy to be going there. I know that in my heart as well as I know my own name. But I know that I did give a promise that I cannot break. I'm not going to delude myself by saying that I am fighting for the freedom of my country, or to protect it, or anything of the like. I do know, however, that I am earning my right to speak my mind without fear of reprisal on any wars we get ourselves into in the future. And from what I understand about war now, and what those who have gone before me into war understand, is that war is a terrible thing that is incomprehensible to those who haven't felt its grasp. I'm not going to make a moral judgment on whether a war is just or not, I am just stating that war is a very catastrophic event to those who fight it, and to those who remain behind after it is over.
My expectation was mostly correct. Speaking my mind about Iraq has only been a problem for me once. Shortly after I returned home a man at a social gathering asked me, "How many towelheads did you kill over there?" A dozen thoughts raced through my mind, but I found myself completely unable to answer, to formulate the perfect response – or any response – capable of expressing my disgust. The helplessness that I felt in that moment is still strong in my memory. How that situation was resolved is not.
What I learned that day is that I never again want to let someone make me feel powerless about my relationship with Iraq, or with war. Casper is powerless to express himself about war because he was killed in Iraq. My old squad leader G. was beaten to death by four men after being thrown out of a birthday party, apparently for talking about some of the things that troubled him about his two tours in Iraq. He was a single dad. Reading into the situation, being a dad made some of the things he encountered and did in Iraq harder to handle. Don't get me wrong – I'm not claiming to speak for Casper or G. That wouldn't be appropriate. Instead, I speak because they can't, and because I can't stand the thought that others will be made to pay a similar price by American wars in the future.
I have an interview for a job this morning. As I write this it's 2:23 am; I know I should be in bed, sleeping and letting my mind rest. I also know that isn't a possibility until I get this post out of my system. Why interview on a day as significant as today? I didn't choose it – I took the opening I was given. Might I have asked for another day? Perhaps. The people interviewing me seem like nice, understanding folks. Maybe saying, "You know, that's the ten year anniversary of my deployment to Iraq. Could we try next week?" would have been okay. Then again, maybe it would have made them uncomfortable, or raised questions I don't feel like answering in an interview. Or maybe it wouldn't. Is civilian America at that point in 2014? I don't know. At any rate, it's not a request I felt comfortable making. Even though I'm open about my Marine Corps service, I'd like a prospective employer to have an opportunity to get to know me a little before Iraq enters the conversation.
Iraq will always be part of me, but only I get to be the one who lets it define me.