Going Back: Vietnam War Vets

Article by Matt Gallagher

“I’d love to go back to the Korengal someday,” my friend Scott Turner told me, referring to the infamous valley in eastern Afghanistan that’s known for heavy conflict nearly every spring, what the locals call “fighting season.” “It’s legit beautiful there. But come on — what would that even look like? We book through Taliban Travel Agency? Stay at five-star Mujahideen Huts?” 

Most of my fellow Iraq veterans I’ve spoken with feel similarly about a potential return. With the notable exception of the Kurdistan region in the north, there’s not much affinity for the place we fought for and fought with and fought against. Recently I had beers with my gruff-voiced friend Matthew Mellina, who was stationed to the same part of central-west Iraq I was, two years apart. “Shit, man,” he said. “Part of my mind’s still over there, every night. Why would I need to walk that dirt again, too?”

Some Iraq veterans have found their way back to the country — as journalists. Nate Rawlings returned to Iraq in 2010 for Time. Roy Scranton returned in 2014 for Rolling Stone. Elliot Ackerman did the same for Esquire in 2017. And Phil Klay only recently returned from a devastated Mosul still recovering from the fight against ISIS. The parts of the country vary in these stories, as do the authors’ intents and conclusions. But something they all share is a strange, perplexed relationship between the Iraq of their memories and the Iraq of their return. And to a man they all went back alone, on a job, searching for clarity but finding only more dark uncertainty.

Resolution, let alone peace, seems as distant for Iraq as ever. Bearing witness to that, and chronicling it, is important — even if it reminds its chroniclers how futile it all can be.

When I started drafting this column, I thought I’d end with some hazy optimistic shit suggesting that someday, maybe, I’ll be able to take my wife and son and golden retriever to the corner of Babylon I gave my youth to, and lost friends in.

But as I thought about my friends’ comments, and went back to the articles and essays of return, I realized that I want to do anything but. My own professional life may point me in the direction of Iraq someday, and for that, I’d consider going. But placing my combat memories and experiences in a mental box and leaving them there is exactly what I needed to do to find a life afterward.

Opening up all that for something as cheap and easy as nostalgia just wouldn’t be worth it.

Matt Gallagher is a U.S. Army veteran and the author of three books, including “Empire City,” newly published by Atria/Simon & Schuster.

**Some 20+ years ago (as of this writing), Penthouse took a different angle on the Vietnam War and its veterans. You might that worth a look too.

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