by Christian Nooney
I’ve always been a social creature. My parents and close friends can attest to that. I’ve always been able to make fast friends in unfamiliar situations. Maybe that explains why I’ve always been attracted to storytelling. And just maybe ten-plus years in the army has made me a better, or at least more comfortable, storyteller.
The first time I told a deployment story was my first night of mid-tour leave from Iraq in April of 2007. My company had already taken eight KIAs and a handful of WIA’s that wouldn’t be returning. We had moved from south of Baghdad, just off of MSR Tampa, to an Observation Post on the outskirts of Fallujah proper named Delta.
I had turned 21 two months before, and after spending six months downrange I had understandably gotten drunk. The story started innocently enough, with a friend of my girlfriend asking me what we had been doing in Iraq. Then came the canned “Have you ever shot anyone?” question.
I proceeded calmly, trying to bring back all of the sensory details I could about the night I had sat on the highway, waiting for the sun to come up to police call pieces of my friends from the pavement. I’ll refrain from the detail here, but as the story went on, I brought these civilian college students to a cold December night in a country they might struggle to find on a map.
I talked about the pervasive smell of gunpowder and blood, the guys in the truck with me, the relief as the last Marlboro Red in our truck was shared. I talked about the men who had gone that night, about the absurdity of Giff, and the calm coolness Linck had always displayed.
And so the story went.
By the time I had finished, I looked up at the circle of kids surrounding me, two girls held back tears, soft sobs punctuating the silence, and three boys had their heads held down. To this day I could only imagine what went through their heads. Tension hung in the air; all of us were in unfamiliar territory with what to do next. But I wasn’t in Iraq so my sense of ease was better. One of them attempted an apology, condolences, something. But it all came out lacking, choppy, and eventually faded off. The confidence of combat pushed the cavalier attitude I was into. Their apologies to me were met with the soldiers’ equivalent of “Thanks for your service”: “Hey. It is what it is, no problem.”
The rest of the night and the rest of my leave I never hesitated to tell my stories, our stories, if someone showed a genuine interest and had the time to listen. I’m sure it got old for the people who were around me the most, and I know it made more than one relative stranger uncomfortable. But at that point it wasn’t about fitting into an image the public had painted me into. It was about getting everyone on the same page.
Similar events have played out over my time and in multiple trips down range—both on the deployed side and the storytelling side. Some of it is probably therapeutic, putting words and validation to the dark thoughts that can run around in anyone’s head. Some of it is a desire to get people on a level understanding of me and my peers, to understand what the country has asked us to do for them. It’s not a plea to get behind the mission or the Global War on Terror, it’s a plea to get involved and fix the way we implement foreign policy if you don’t agree (we can save that for another talk though).
The entitlement culture (as popular media would call it) hasn’t skipped the military. We feel as if we’re entitled to special treatment, often in the form of not waiting in a line; or not being bothered in public; or people being more situationally aware on the roads, clubs, restaurants, what have you. We feel as if we should get immediate respect without ever having to back that up a little. It turns civilians off from us, and it turns us off from civilians.
Let’s start to bring our stories to the average guy on the street, to get him to understand a small bit of our culture. We volunteered to serve as protectors of this country. Its people need to know what the country asked of us, and what we did in our service to the flag.
Take the time to tell your story, and tell it well. If you weren’t the hero or the centerpiece, that’s fine. I never was. You could just be someone involved in the events, maybe carrying a litter, maybe just sitting in the turret, but they were valid and real experiences nonetheless. Relive that event with the civilians you’re sharing the story with. You’ll find going back through it with company isn’t as bad as the first time it happened.