War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
The great Tim O’Brien wrote that in The Things They Carried, his groundbreaking short-story collection about the Vietnam War. It’s been a couple years since I last revisited that book, but I was brought back to those lines recently when I traveled to rural Oklahoma for the wedding of one of my former soldiers, Smitty.
It’s been ten years since we served together in a scout platoon in Iraq, a number that defies memory, but there it is. Some days it feels like yesterday that we were walking the sand alleys of the sectarian villages north of Baghdad. Other days, it feels like a few years back—but a decade?! Naw, a decade ago would mean we’re old now. And that can’t fucking be.
A third soldier from our scout platoon, Chris, also attended the wedding. He’s been on two more combat tours since ours, and is still in the Army. Over some post-ceremony beers, he discussed the mind’s slipperiness of time, and why he still serves. “It’s always there, you know? Every day, every minute matters over there. It’s not the same in the States.”
Wise words from a career military man.
Hell. Mystery. Terror. Holiness. Death. All of that and so much more. As any military veteran can tell you, reunions like we had at Smitty’s wedding can be balm for the soul. I’ve spent a lot of my life since Iraq writing and reasoning and reckoning with what we saw and did. Many vets—most, really—don’t get that.
I’ve been blessed to tell our stories. Some vets don’t want to look back at that part of their lives, choosing instead to pack it all in and go forward that way. To each their own, of course. But even for an oversharer like me, there was something really freeing about trading old war tales with the men who were there beside me back when.
Our first firefight. The night with the IED emplacers on Route Lincoln. The time we rolled up on a post-car-bomb scene and found wild dogs licking up the scraps of a dead sheik. The wild, manifold smells of the desert. The tinny, mechanical sounds of the outpost. The scattershot images of the Iraqi soldier bleeding out on the examination table in the medic station, despite everyone doing everything they could, trying their absolute best, before the medevac got there.
Those missions and patrols have lingered with me for a decade now, and aren’t going away anytime soon. Turns out they’ve lingered with Smitty and Chris, too, and that shared understanding and experience (plus a few Bud Lights) loosened something in us all.