Soldier of Fortune
In April, I looked upon the building that had been my home for the previous 12 months. Any time you leave a place of extended residence it's natural to feel some nostalgia, and not a little grief, over the end of a portion of your life. There were no such emotions in this leave-taking, however. It was not as if I were leaving Boston, my hometown. I was staring at an abandoned building just outside Baghdad.
I had spent the last year as a platoon leader conducting offensive patrols, raids, and search operations in the area surrounding Baghdad International Airport. Now, we were returning to our home station in Germany. Though I may not have felt fondness for my quarters, I did harbor mixed emotions of another sort: relief, because we were leaving in the midst of brutal fighting, and guilt, because so many of our fellow soldiers were left behind.
On April 12 our convoy of more than 100 vehicles hit the road, traveling the same route along which we had stormed north almost one year earlier. On the way, one truck in the convoy had two of its tires blown out by small-arms fire, and several bullets lodged in the seat of one soldier. Another time, a rocket-propelled grenade bounced lazily across the road, mere feet in front of a speeding Humvee, then exploded harmlessly on the opposite side. In my 12 months in Baghdad, we had encountered quite a few grenades, mortars, and bullets. All too often I had watched them land with deadly precision, but this time we were lucky.
When we crossed the border into Kuwait, I felt a release of tension I had not known I was harboring. Finally, I could concentrate on other things, such as trolling the Internet for news of the Red Sox, trying to get in shape for my reintroduction to the feminine half of our species, and anticipating my return to the United States, where I was heading for a month's convalescent leave.
I was unsure how I would be received by people back home. I knew the history, of course — the history of soldiers returning home from an unpopular war to a citizenry angry over the war and angry with those who had carried it out. The newspapers were filled with disturbing reports about both Moqtada al-Sadr's Shiite uprising and the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison. The coverage of what had gone wrong in Iraq was drowning out reports of what had gone right.
My older brother was vehemently opposed to the war. During the course of my long deployment I had treasured his letters, which arrived almost every day. I respected his position and recognized that outspoken criticism of a public policy with which you do not agree is an integral part of a functioning democracy. It is an act as valid, necessary, and patriotic as donning a uniform. I had graduated from Harvard in 2001 with a major in history and literature. I had intended to work for several years before law school, but after September 11, I volunteered for the army. My brother fully respected my choice. I knew how we felt about each other, but how would others feel about me?
Any fear I might have had was allayed as I stepped out of customs at Logan Airport. There were my cheering parents and, beside them, multitudes of strangers offering congratulations and thanks. I have little doubt that my mother and father, never shy, had shared my story with everyone who happened to be waiting in the airport with them.
As the days went by, as I reunited with friends and family, I realized that I was not the only student of history. I detected a pronounced separation between people's political feelings toward the war and those toward the soldiers entrusted with executing it. Perhaps the collective memory of the harsh treatment of soldiers returning home a generation earlier was enough that the lesson has been learned for all generations.
Of course, I was faced with other questions I would rather not have pondered: How did the war change you? What was it like to watch people perish before you? What was it like to engage, with deadly force, other human beings? If there are easy answers to questions such as these I have yet to find them, and I don't think I'm ready to begin searching for them.
After a while, I found it easier to talk. Indeed, I wanted to talk. I wanted my countrymen to know that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were in no way indicative of what our soldiers were doing. I had witnessed remarkable restraint in the handling of sensitive detainees.
One night, a patrol force in our unit hit a large roadside bomb. The blast sent shrapnel flying through the lead truck, instantly killing the driver. The enemy followed up by engaging the American force with small-arms fire. The American gunner on top of the truck returned fire, giving the rest of the patrol time to take up firing positions and drive away from the ambush. Only after the smoke had dissipated did it become clear that the gunner had suffered a mortal wound. Shrapnel from the blast had severed his jugular.
The next night, the same patrol came upon a group of insurgents planting a similar device. The patrol force was able to intercept and detain them. In the insurgents' vehicle they found not only the materials to put in place the deadly device that had claimed two lives the night before, but also a home video of the very same men implanting the very same bomb that had done the deed.
Not one fist was raised in anger. Not one rifle was leveled. The patrol leader stoically cuffed the prisoners and took them to the interrogation facility, where they were turned over to intelligence specialists in accordance with the law.
I don't mean to imply that I encountered no pressure at home. It was known that I had received a Bronze Star for my service in Iraq. Perhaps because of this, Red Sox president Larry Lucchino invited me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a game against the Blue Jays on May 22. In the days leading up to this, I was inundated with phone calls from my friends, all with a veneer of support but also laced with warnings: Don't one-hop the pitch!
As I limped to the mound on that glorious evening, my right leg in a brace after surgery for injuries I had sustained in Iraq, I was as nervous as I had been on my nightly patrols in Baghdad. But it was also on that evening at Fenway that I finally came to realize I was home and that the trials of war were behind me. And it was not because I was surrounded by the people I loved. It was not because the sellout crowd gave me a wonderful reception, and it was not because I somehow managed to throw a strike. It was because the Red Sox claimed victory and I was consumed, as in years past, with one thought — that maybe this was the year. B