“You weren’t actually involved in any real fighting over there, were you?” a childhood friend asked me on my return from Iraq. I felt as offended as if he’d walked up and slapped me. I felt invalidated by the very question. “Of course I was!” I shot back. “What do you think I’ve been doing for the past 10 years?!” I explained that we were tasked with the pursuit and capture of specific individuals, making our mission unrelentingly violent. We used plastic explosives to enter Iraqi homes in the dark hours, flowing through them like a flash flood, heralding our entry into each room with flash-bang grenades that felt like a punch in the head if you followed them too closely. We fought in the homes of our enemies, among their families. I told him what it was like to be in a firefight inside a house. How the blast of automatic weapons fire in a small room is so loud as to strip away conscious thought, leaving muscle memory born of rote repetition to determine who lives or dies. It was seven months of blood and fire and broken glass. He seemed discomfited by the exchange, and after a silence changed the subject. If a friend I’d grown up with, who knew me well, could not, or did not want to, understand what I was saying, how could I hope to explain it to anyone else?
On the way home from Iraq, we were herded into a tent in Kuwait and given forms that asked us to indicate the experiences we’d had by coloring in bubbles next to questions. Had I seen Americans wounded? Yes. Had I seen Americans killed? Yes. Had I seen Iraqis wounded? Yes. Had I seen Iraqis killed? Yes. Had I been shot at? Yes. Had I shot at anyone? Yes. We turned in the forms, then wandered the camp, constrained by huge sand berms, with little to do other than eat and ogle mannequins in skimpy lingerie being sold by Kuwaiti merchants. I was never asked about that form again. I still don’t know its purpose. It was the first of many occasions when someone asked me for my story but didn’t seem to know what to do with the answers.
Having spent the majority of the deployment cleaning ourselves under a single cold-water pipe, we took advantage of a nearby shower trailer reserved solely for Marines permanently assigned in Kuwait. Two such Marines entered as we basked in the steam from the hot showers. One of them demanded we leave. No one said a word, but the look in our eyes must have said something dire because the second Marine grabbed the first by the arm and simply said, “Back away, man, they’ve been up north,” and left us to ourselves. Even before we had left the region, even among our fellow Marines, we had already become disconnected. I wondered how we would explain to people back home the things we had done in their name. But I hold to the notion that there is value in the effort — value for me and, I hope, for the people who I talk to.
On our return to Camp Lejeune, N.C., we were freed to spend a night with our families. Unable to sleep, I woke my wife at 2 a.m. and made her watch “Napoleon Dynamite,” a movie that so divided my platoon I thought we would come to blows over its absurdities. I wanted her to see and understand something about the previous seven months of my life. I didn’t know how to tell her about a 2-year-old child toddling through window glass shattered by an explosive charge and leaving tiny, bloody footprints on the polished concrete floor of his home. Later that morning, more than a hundred Marines assembled in a final unit formation behind a large brick building immediately across the New River from a demolitions range. Before we were dismissed for the last time as a unified group, some Marines across the river detonated a substantial charge. We all visibly flinched, some of us dropping to the ground, all of us conditioned to dodge the shrapnel and fire that invariably accompanied loud blasts in Iraq. We looked around at one another and slowly stood back up, laughing at ourselves but sharing a level of understanding that has since been elusive.
Ironically, that common understanding is both the thing we most need from each other as veterans and the thing that keeps some of us from effectively reconnecting with civilians, a critical factor as we become civilians ourselves. Sajer’s notion of remaining separated from the human condition, though he claimed not to feel regret, is nothing less than self-imposed exile. Just as I felt when I stood before that Iraqi policeman, it is my responsibility to say something, to find some sort of connection. I just ask that you not get frustrated or awkward and turn away if the translation comes haltingly, or if the truth proves to be more than you wanted.