The Other Side of the Gunfire: Life in a Battalion Aid Station

By Sean Tyler

There are plenty of firsthand articles about the life of a door kicker. This isn’t one of them. I don’t want to paint the picture that I’ve ever experienced combat first hand. I was an enlisted infantryman prior to OIF/OEF, and then a medical platoon leader/headquarters company executive officer in an infantry battalion in my career as an officer and during my deployment to Ar Ramadi, Iraq in 2006-2007. My experience in a combat zone is much different than that of the combat infantrymen and line medics I know and love. I don’t know what it’s like  take a life or to treat wounds under fire. What I do know is the result of combat operations when things don’t go quite as planned.

When people ask what it was like as a medical platoon in a combat zone I simply reply “It was like running an ER for all of my best friends,”  but that didn’t quite paint an accurate picture. Being “dual-hatted” as the battalion medical officer and an executive officer, 95% of my time in Iraq was spent doing the behind-the-scenes work.. Yet only 5% of my most influential memories were from this position. Read More…

Veterans’ Daughters

by Daniel Buckman

It was a veteran’s daughter who read my first attempts at fiction, written in spiral binders at Fort Bragg, and mailed in letters to her Dekalb, Illinois’ dorm room. She talked to me about my writing through one of fifty payphones outside the First Brigade snack bar from her university in the Northern Illinois cornfields. Another veteran’s daughter made me take a classics’ class at University of Illinois because the professor spent the quarter on The Iliad and The Odyssey, telling me how the books helped her dad change when her mom almost divorced him. One veteran’s granddaughter, 2nd Marines WW II, read the typed attempts at my first novels and told me I wasn’t worth my jump wings and other things if I stopped trying to write books. Marine veteran’s daughters keep their fathers’ “devil-dog” attitude about the Marine Corps. As a young veteran, I discovered by the second date that their fathers had been Army or Marine infantryman somewhere in the world. These young women knew me before I knew them and were analyzing deeper parts of me before I knew their middle name. I was also very tired and finding myself more nostalgic for the army I couldn’t wait to leave. They ignored my confusion, treated me like a 22 year-old guy, made me dance, and spend many library study dates with them where I heard the college degree completion rap twelve different and wonderful ways.

If luck let me date these beautiful young women long enough to meet their fathers, the infantry veteran wanted to meet me yesterday after hearing that I was a 82nd Airborne Division grunt going to University of Illinois on the GI Bill. Every father received me like a platoon sergeant, flashed me a true “thousand-mile stare,” told me where they served in Vietnam, and repeated three times where their daughter is never to be taken, what time she is to be home, and if we wanted to stay up all night talking and watching movies, we were free to do that in his basement; they patrolled the house every hour all night. I said “yes sir,” and they joke-asked if the army had started “sirring” buck sergeants twenty years discharged. Then we drank cold cans of Budweiser in a garage of a Southwest or Northwest Side bungalow. I was asked by every father how a fool could jump from a perfectly good airplane. The Tet Offensive usually came up by beer three and stayed until there was no more cans left in the garage fridge.

These veteran’s daughters were tough and alert young women. They loved their fathers and watched them struggle with the residue of military experience as girls. They helped their dads to bed when they became too numb to walk and their mother was exhausted, trying to convince herself that she was finished while chain smoking Virginia Slims in the backyard of a Northwest Side Bungalow.

They all had plans and set the curve at Illinois. They wanted to backpack in Europe with you and fought like hell if you tried to pay more than half. They read Russian novels for real, recited passages from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,  knew the history on the royal lines of Europe, Russia included, and ran a faster 10K than you did. Their optimism and energy were infectious. Their academic goals were never distorted by their tears, which fell whenever they thought of the sacrifices their fathers made as combat infantrymen and union carpenters so they could be in college and traveling a Europe they would never see. They drove me towards my dreams after coming home exhausted and half-homesick for Fort Bragg and my platoon, a feeling I never foresaw when I was ninety days away from discharge.

VetDaugthers ImgThey were the daughters of Vietnam War soldiers and Marines who read Simone De Beauvoir and George Sand, volunteered to tutor in neighborhoods that sent their fathers into rages when they found out by my tip—and then not speak to either of us for a week while they continued to tutor. They never let my exhaustion win, the fact that I missed old, close friends because I never found new ones to replace them when I hardly considered this to be a future issue when I left Fort Bragg. They kept me meeting people. They got mad for two weeks—the ‘I don’t know you’ mad—when they caught me drinking Budweiser pitchers at the Stillery on Chicago’s Taylor Street with Outfit foot soldiers who overlooked my student status because Rocco Infelise, the Cicero boss, served with the 101st Airborne Division in WW II and came around Tuesday nights and liked making fun of the 82d Airborne Division and that was me.  They had no fear of walking into the bar and reminding me I had a chemistry test in the morning before ignoring me for two weeks.  They got everything about me and never let my excuses work, and taught me to understand the most delicate memories and emotions they carried, which taught me about love.  The Outfit guys sat quiet while these young women lectured me about not giving up and becoming frustrated like every veteran in their family.  Then the Outfit guys told me not to be a moron and go find her while Rocco Inflise, visiting from Cicero, waved me out the door and said, “They 82nd has a problem getting scattered whenever they jump. The CO wants you to go home and assemble and stay away from the 101st.”  I begged them for fourteen days to speak a word before they appeared with an expectation that I confess to being a jackass for drinking beer with Outfit guys.

Without veterans’ daughters, I doubt I would have learned that women are the lone reason men amount to anything and why many men want to hold them down because this fact slaughters the cowboy ‘”Murican” mythology that still runs our collective narrative.

The veteran’s daughter that shamed me from the Stillery back to library became my wife. Rebecca was a girl from the Western Illinois cornfields who looked like Audrey Hepburn and pulled a 36 on her ACT the same year her relay team placed second in state. She was accepted with 50% scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Rebecca’s father, “Pappy,” was the guy who strung the platoons of infantry companies together with land-line wire when they still had to crank field phones with the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. He raised five kids in a VA Loan house by climbing country telephone poles in Illinois winters to fix frozen transformers for 38 years at GTE. In Korea, Pappy broke out of the Pusan Perimeter with the Ninth Infantry Regiment and chased the North Koreans to the Yalu River where divisions of Chinese were forming to deal with the Americans in human waves. In Bureau County, Illinois, after Korea, Pappy climbed his telephone poles, ran Little League Baseball, and got two sons college football scholarships. He could only send Rebecca, his quiet, brown-eyed daughter who studied French since sixth grade and he drove to Joliet every Saturday after sixty hours of climbing poles with Davey Miller, a USMC veteran of Korea and the Chosin Resevoir, so she could take advanced math classes at a Catholic school. She got into University of Illinois on a full academic scholarship. Harvard and Yale weren’t accessible to veteran’s daughters, and I believe Rebecca not going to Harvard hurt Pappy deeper than it did her. Veteran’s daughters learn to accept inequity and keep probing until the gatekeepers are asleep. Without them, a veteran would never learn that the cliché of making lemonade out of lemons is true. She understood the radical maturity her father gained in Korea and understood how that came into conflict with civilization. She took a BS in Psychology and a BA in Art History so she could learn more about her father.

I spent our first date listening to her talk for hours about Pappy instead of her two years in England, her Scottish boyfriend that she almost married, or her trips to Europe and Mexico with her college girlfriends. She didn’t ramble about a future girl’s trip planned to Spain, her advancing career in health care consulting, her addiction to “MASH,” or her cats her cats, which she loved. This young woman had even dated doctors, but she hated it. Instead she loved talking about her veteran father with me over Heineken and Thai food. I fell in love.  I remember sitting across the table from Audrey Hepburn, her eyes like wet, brown silk, realizing right then that I was having dinner with my wife—my buddies wanted to know the 411, and I told them that I had met my wife. They thought I was joking about some unexpected hot sex, but after hearing that I was lucky to get a soft kiss after five dates they thought I was crazy.

We made love after two months and read and talked about what we read and shuttled our cats about the city like children depending who was hosting for the weekend. One morning after and running, I came back and found her reading early, shitty drafts of The Names of Rivers on my couch. She walked across my apartment when I opened the door, sweaty to my Nikes from a humid Chicago run. Her long hair, Scots Irish and Cherokee black, was wet on my shirt she had picked from my closet. She kissed me and said that we have to move into together, sublet our future two bedroom to visiting medical students, and move to Paris for six months on savings. I could write and she could get better with her French before graduate school. Pappy never said a word, which scared me, and seemed happy that Becky was going to speak all the French she studied since sixth grade and come back to be a teacher. The man knew upon our first meeting that I loved his daughter and I would never return fire in a Chicago street fight with her beside me because her safety was my first priority.

Within a month, I was slack-jawed, writing in a one bedroom apartment on Rue Monsieur le Prince with this beautiful woman who was giving up doctors for me, having dinner nightly at The Polidor across the street, where Flaubert wrote and Rebecca tutored the owner’s children in English, and spending it all with a girl from the cornfields with brown eyes that trapped Frenchman by the second, became fluent in two weeks, spent hours alone at Musee D’Orsay, and never would tell me about her favorite painting of the day unless I guessed in five tries. In the shopwindow lights of Boulevard Saint Michel, we walked to the Seine nights and mocked ourselves for going through the outdoor bookstall. We refused to let our university professor’s post-modern cool ruin this time in Paris even if we were playing dress up. We looked across the rooftops and jagged chimneys of the Latin Quartier at night and scanned the windows for Rebecca’s beloved cats posing over Rue Monsieur le Prince.  I let Hemingways’s A Movebale Feast become our guidebook, as clichéd as that sounded then and sounds today, and lived with a woman who showed me how to smile with her love.

I had two novels published inside the next two years with the wonderful Akashic Books like Rebecca had promised me when I let my stupidity about writing frustrate me to anger in Paris herself, and published two more with Saint Martin’s/Picador. My wife went to graduate school in accounting at Illinois, but dropped all the business nonsense to become a second grade CPS teacher until the mayor changed that for many fine women. She got mad when I tried romantic muse poetry on her, which she was for me, and said she just told me what a common reader who doesn’t write would say.

She was a grunt’s daughter, and like all grunt’s daughters, she carries a “bullshit detector” in her eyes that are reading your mind “Lima Charlie” before you even open your mouth and have their name clear.  Without Rebecca and millions of other veteran’s daughters who are unafraid to return the world’s fire with their veteran boyfriends or husbands, millions of male veterans would have experienced the absolute, real-life destruction of the soldier’s dream of love, home, and family.  Veteran’s daughters convinced me to educate myself, get a job that pay, and love them while taking in Europe. They convinced me to live. They are the most pragmatic feminists that I have met.  They have a deeper understanding of history’s unspeakable fascination with war and the masculine ritual of military service than us guys who served in the infantry divisions.  Daughters love their fathers and their fathers were combat veterans so they learned how to love surly grunts without knowing they were learning anything because they knew that their sheep dog father climbed from his rabbit hole whenever PTS would let him imagine his brown-eyed daughter smiling and saying “Bonjour, Papa” in a track suit she saved her allowance to buy.

On Telling War Stories

by Jerad W. Alexander

In a bar in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, I sat across from a woman with eyes like wet iron and watched through cigarette smoke as she explained how her boyfriend had been murdered. He had been killed the previous May at a popular drive-in theater. After the movie had ended he discovered his car battery had failed him and he needed a jump. He walked to the truck next to him, tapped on the dark driver-side window, and for his troubles received a bullet to the chest which killed him as paramedics worked on him in the back of a speeding ambulance.

Her story put a zap through my spine, as I’m sure it would anyone. She cried almost mechanically as she told it. She was tough, and would later give testimony before a jury that would inevitably put the shooter away for life. But at the moment, there in the bar under a haze of beer and whiskey and chain-smoked cigarettes, was a reflection of old pains I recognized almost immediately. A savagery had taken hold, a bitterness. It was completely justified, of course, but I recognized it because I had once carried it within myself. It’s the kind of thing you can hear in the back of the throat—a sort of bile-damp gravel that curls the upper lip an almost imperceptible measure. You can see it as a hardening of the eye capillaries whenever pain creates rage; and I felt a dubious need to lay on some Old Folksy Wartime Wisdom. I had been in her world, at least in a certain psychic sense, and I wanted to offer perspective.

I told her a war story.

I told her of a lance corporal I knew in Iraq who was killed by an alpha-male nightmare and the comic error of bad driving. One afternoon, the staff NCO of the guard at our camp in western Iraq orchestrated a response drill. Basically, he wanted to see how fast his Marines would respond to a potential threat in the camp, normally a routine and completely justifiable action. However, the staff NCO of the guard, a massive gunnery sergeant with a booming voice and woefully arrogant demeanor who lead by fear and intimidation, whipped his troops into a stress frenzy. As the lance corporal rode in the bed of an open air Humvee the nervous driver misread a turn and flipped the top-heavy vehicle onto its back. The lance corporal was tossed from the bed and crushed between the roof and the ground.

I found out about it soon after from the battalion administration staff NCO who was a friend of mine. He had been called to identify the body a few hours earlier. Later, as I glumly walked toward my hooch to shed my gear I passed near the helipad reserved for the battalion aid station. Standing outside the entrance to the station were two facing ranks of Navy corpsman. A number of others, including the battalion chaplain, were on hand. Unsure of what was going on I stopped and watched. Within a few seconds a fat gray Marine transport helicopter clattered to the ground and dropped its ramp. Fine Iraqi dust flew in thick billows around all of us. The wooden doors of the aid station burst open and through the dust two corpsmen wheeled a gurney toward the back of the chopper. On it rested a rumpled black body bag. . .

Kestava - WastelandIt was at about this point in the story that I became emotional. Sitting in front of this woman in a dive bar in Atlanta my eyes welled slightly. It was an odd thing, the welling up. I had never done that before. I had told that story to a few close others, but never had I came close to weeping. And yet, even now as I write on this rainy summer night years later, I feel that same sad rush collect in my sinuses, and it makes me laugh because it’s such an old story now.

Back in the bar and next to the helipad, I shakily told her how as the corpsmen wheeled his body to the maw of the helicopter everyone gave an honest salute in good keeping with war movie clichés. But it was a bitter salute for me, and one that did not last very long. The bird revved its massive blades to liftoff speeds and sent the dust into a whirlwind. I told her how I swore it was the dust, that rotten dust that coated my eyes and inside my nose, that made me turn away and wipe the water from my eyes and beat a fist in rage against the concrete warehouse I stood near. I explained my vitriol toward the gunnery sergeant, toward the shaky Humvee driver, and toward the general lock-step stupidity. I told her I wanted to kill everything. I told her I hated the war and the marketed and bullying jingoism that put us all in that country to begin with, for her and for even you now.

But I quickly dried up and offer The Message—that I had long factored it all, come to grips with the war despite my spurring emotions, and had found peace with the war and my involvement in it, while maintaining an itch to express to others the savagery, oddities, insanities, and even the humanity of the Marine Corps and of Iraq War at large; and that hopefully in telling these things to others could expand on some larger truth that might spare us further damage, as Pollyanna as that lofty goal might be. I explained how she might have a similar opportunity when she was ready for it. She seemed to understand.

For years I figured other veterans shut up about their service because of some latent trauma. Perhaps I’m woefully naïve, but it never occurred to me they might stay silent because of the response they might receive. I don’t talk much about the military anymore, at least not in casual conversations or in detail with folks I don’t know very well. The subject has a tendency to spray a social gathering with what seems to be an ultrafine shit-mist, regardless of whether I’m talking about a wild barracks party during a hurricane or a day in Iraq when my buddy and I laughed and shoved each other like schoolkids as we lugged a machinegun to the roof of a building taking sniper fire. There’s often an unspoken assumption that I’m somehow damaged, that because I’m telling some wartime anecdote I must certainly be in the grips of some flashback just shy of some violent boiling point. While wildly inaccurate, this certainly accounts for all the stories of human resources managers and job recruiters who’ve skipped over veterans’ resumes because they don’t want to have a real life John Rambo (or their fearhead image of one) sitting in the breakroom with the regular squares during lunch break.

The sad truth is that while I’m completely comfortable telling honest war stories, I often wonder if the audience that needs to hear them the most—those who have built their understanding of the wars on dubious political or social perceptions—are simply unreceptive, or unavailable.

The Written Word about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been shuttled off into easily digestible camps. There are the hero/war porn tales filled with soul-wounded sniper-death-kill memoirs, Navy SEAL vignettes, and whatever jingoist G.I. Joe/Greatest Generation war stories that pack up the Great White neocon newsfeeds. It’s the land of the battle hardened operator, the bonafide ‘Merican hero above reproach who makes the flyover states feel a little more comfortable in their dubious notion of American Exceptionalism. Alternatively, there is the often well intentioned-but-retreaded literary war fiction that feels beaten into the MFA copy of the Novel of the Last Big War while desperately trying to squeeze out Tim O’Brien for a spot in the next generation of high school English text books. They do a better job of portraying the battlefield, from both physical and moral standpoints, but they’re packed with so much wartime woe that any uneducated reader is bound to be chased off by the suicidal demons that crawl off the pages. The running narratives of these wars are wrapped up in either politicized chest-beating or as the showroom models of damaged goods. Veterans tend to favor the former while civilians edge toward the latter, if they’re inclined to go anywhere at all. Neither of them are completely accurate and we’re all suffering because of it.

As the night progressed in the smoky bar, and as she asked me questions about the war, her tone darkened. After downing shots and beers over loud Tom Waits and Johnny Cash she looked at me through cigarette smoke and her old bitterness churned alive. She looked sprayed with the aforementioned shit-mist, but for some atavistic reason kept wading through it anyway. After a while it felt more like an interrogation than a conversation. Finally, she interrupted me—

“You were a minion,” she said.

“I’m sorry?”

“You were a minion, ok?. You did Bush’s dirty work. You’re a murderer? I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. I don’t believe in any of it. How could you even do all that? It makes me sick.”

The music softened. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe I thought it did. Somewhere in the back of my frayed auditory cortex a concerned synapse must have turned down the worldly volume because everything focused on this one precise moment. All the recording devices of my mind clicked on as if I had tapped into some bizarre historical conduit too foul to let slip by. I had read of veterans returning from Vietnam with similar stories, but always assumed they were limited to the time period. And yet here it was: bold faced, stark, dry, and very real.

I know many combat veterans who would have gone completely sideways at mere notion of having anyone bounce such prejudices their way. A few might have ripped the table from the floor and broke the wood down to splinters. Others still might have even been tipped enough to get violent with even her, regardless of the state where her statements came from (which can only be half accounted to trauma). As for me, I pride myself on a certain level of emotional wherewithal. There is no perspective one can offer to assuage the emotional amputation caused by a violent death of someone close, or in some cases even nonviolent. Its only remedy is time and time alone. Even now I have to routinely remind myself of that fact. There is no other fix. Nevertheless, I quickly paid and washed my hands of the whole rotten scene. I was too stunned to do otherwise. Sometimes I wonder if shattering a few pint glasses on the way out might have been worth it, if only as a punctuation mark.

Are veterans obligated to Spread the Word out to the congregation? Is it worth wading across the divide between veterans and civilians? I know for me it is, at least in a certain respect, but walking out of that bar those years ago I had to rationally wonder if the waters are simply too high to cross.