man pointing gunWell, I'm here in Iraq, and I've seen it, and done it. I've seen everything you've ever seen in a war movie. I've seen cowardice; I've seen heroism; I've seen fear; and I've seen relief. I've seen blood and brains all over the back of a vehicle, and I've seen men bleed to death surrounded by their comrades. I've seen people throw up when it's all over.

And I've seen the same shell shocked look in 35 year old experienced sergeants as in 19 year old privates. I've heard the screams-"Medic! Medic!" I've hauled dead civilians out of cars, and I've looked down at my hands and seen them covered in blood after putting some poor Iraqi civilian in the wrong place at the wrong time into a helicopter. kids with gunshot wounds, and I've seen kids who've tried to kill me.
I've seen men tell lies to save lives: "What happened to Sergeant A--?" The reply: "C'mon man, he's all right-he's wondering if you'll be okay-he said y'all will have a beer together when you get to Germany." SFC A-- was lying fifteen feet away on the other side of the bunker with two medics over him desperately trying to get either a pulse or a breath. The man who asked after him was SGT B--, bleeding from two gut wounds and rasping as he tried to talk with a collapsed lung. SGT B-- made it-SFC A-- didn't.

I've run for cover as fast as I've ever run-I'll hear the bass percussion thump of mortar rounds and rockets exploding as long as I live. I've heard the shrapnel as it shredded through the trailers my men live in and over my head. I've stood, gasping for breath, as I helped drag into a bunker a man so pale and badly bloodied I didn't even recognize him as a soldier I've known for months. I've gathered my breath, stood up straight and walked out of a bunker where everyone was taking cover to check the trailers for my men. I've run across open ground to find my soldiers and make sure I had everyone.

I've kicked in doors to houses and seen them fall flat at my feet-like in every action movie you've ever watched. I've raided houses, and shot off locks, and broken in windows. I've grabbed prisoners, and guarded them. I've looked into the faces of men who would have killed me if I'd driven past their IED an hour later. I've looked at men who've killed two people I knew, and saw fear. I've seen that, sadly, that men who try to kill other men aren't monsters, and most of them aren't even brave-they aren't defiant to the last-they're ordinary people. Men are men, and that's it.

I've prayed for a man to make a move towards the wire, so I could flip my weapon off safe and put two rounds in his chest-if I could beat my platoon sergeant's shotgun to the punch. I've been wanted dead, and I've wanted to kill.

man pointing gunI've sworn at the radio when I heard one of classmate's platoon sergeant's call over the radio: "Contact! Contact! IED, small arms, mortars! One KIA, three WIA!" Then a burst of staccato gunfire and a frantic cry: "Red 1, where are you! Where are you!" as we raced to the scene, as fast as our HUMVEES could take us, knowing full well we were too late for at least one of our comrades.

I've sped through towns, guns at the ready, my gut tight, as we drove down the only road we could see towards an ominous black cloud of smoke rising on the horizon. I've seen a man without the back of his head and still done what I've been trained to do-"Medic!" I've cleaned up blood and brains so my soldiers wouldn't see it-taken pictures to document the scene, like I'm in some sort of bizarre cop show on TV.

I've heard gunfire and hit the ground, heard it and closed my HUMVEE door, and heard it and just looked and figured it was too far off to worry about.

I've seen men stacked up outside a house, ready to enter-some as scared as they could be, and some as calm as if they were picking up lunch from McDonalds. I've laughed at dead men, and watched a sergeant on the ground, laughing so hard he was crying, because my boots were stuck in a muddy field, all the while an Iraqi corpse not five feet from him.

I've heard men worry about civilians, and I've heard men shrug and sum up their viewpoint in two words-"F*ck 'em." I've seen people shoot when they shouldn't have, and I've seen my soldiers take an extra second or two, think about it, and spare somebody's life.

I've sat in a sandstorm and spat grit out of my teeth. I've slept in a thundershower in the desert. I've seen vehicles disappear into the wind not ten feet in front of me-not even their lights visible. I've seen the dawn, and I've seen flashes of light brighter than the dawn at midnight.

I've heard things that sound surreal-things you tell yourself you'll never hear, never say. "We've got a bird down!" "Light 'em up!" and "There is no such thing as a white flag."

I've been the new guy-"What are those for?" "Stops RPGs, sir." And, in a month, I've been the veteran-"Why do your men have a .50 cal round tucked in their body armor, sir?" "They say the big bullet keeps the smaller ones away."

I've bought drinks from Iraqis while new units watched in wonder from their trucks, pointing weapons in every direction, including at the Iraqis my men were buying a Pepsi from. I've patrolled roads for 8 hours at a time that combat support units spend days preparing to travel ten miles on.

I've laughed as other units sit terrified in traffic, fingers nervously on triggers, while my soldiers and I deftly whip around, drive on the wrong side of the road, and wave to Iraqis as we pass. I can recognize a Sadiqqi (Arabic for friend) from a Haji (Arabic word for someone who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, but our word for a bad guy); I know who to point my weapons at, and who to let pass.

I've come in from my third 18 hour patrol in as many days with a full beard and stared at a major in a pressed uniform who hasn't left the wire since we've been here, daring him to tell me to shave. He looked at me, looked at the dust and sweat and dirt on my uniform, and went back to typing at his computer. I've stood with my men in the mess hall, surrounded by people who's idea of a bad day in Iraq is a six hour shift manning a radio, and watched them give us a wide berth as we swagger in, dirty, smelly, tired, but sure in our knowledge that we pull the triggers, and we do what the Army does, and they, with their clean uniforms and weapons that have never fired, support us.

I've heard people who've been in the Army fifteen years longer than I have thank me a thousand times for providing them security when their vehicle broke down even after I told them they were in a pretty safe area. I've heard my soldiers laugh at what other people consider dangerous, and heard them make jokes about death.

I've given a kid water and Gatorade and made a friend for life. I've let them look through my sunglasses-no one wears them in this country but us-and watched them pretend to be an American soldier-a swaggering invincible machine, secure behind his sunglasses, only because the Iraqis can't see the fear in his eyes. I've taken off my helmet and glasses inside someone's house, just trying to calm them down, to reassure them that I'm not the robot I look like with my gear, and my weapons, and my radios.

I've waved at little kids who smile and wave back, I've winked at little toddlers who hide behind their mother's leg when we come inside, and I've seen coy smiles from doorways as girls in their teens peer at us when they aren't supposed to, and, occasionally, if they think they can get away with it, wave at us-the exotic, dangerous, foreigners. I've seen a woman give roses to my senior scout, who was quite unsure what to make of it, and more than a little worried that her husband or brother or father who might be back inside the house, looking for his AK.

I've said it a thousand times-"God, I hate this country." I've heard it a million times more-"This place sucks." In quieter moments, I've heard more profound things-"Sir, this is a thousand times worse than I ever thought it would be," and, "My wife and SGT C--'s wife were good friends-I hope she's taking it well," and "Sir, I know I said I wanted my CIB, but now I think I'll be okay if I never get it."

I've told men to get in their vehicles and do what I say or I'd send them to jail, and I've asked the same soldiers how they were taking it. I've had my men tell me they couldn't trust me one day, because our mission ran long, and had them run to me and ask if this or that was true two days later. I've had them tell me I'm not afraid enough for them-and had other soldiers laugh, because they know, like me, that they'll come through it all right.

I've heard my soldiers who were so scared only a few days earlier that they told me they wouldn't go out on patrol get angry when they heard another soldier actually did refuse to go out on a mission. They say they're scared, and say they won't do this or that, but when it comes time to do it, they can't let their buddies down, can't let their friends go outside the wire without them, because they know it isn't right for the team to go into the ballgame at any less than 100%.

That's combat, I guess, and there's no way you can be ready for it, it just is what it is, and everybody's experience is different.

Just thought you might want to know what it's really like,

2LT, North of Baghdad
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