by Patrick Mondaca
“There is a core of anger in the soul of almost every veteran, and we are justified in calling it bitterness, but the bitterness of one man is not the same thing as the bitterness of another. In one man it becomes a consuming flame that sears his soul and burns his body. In another it is barely traceable. It leads one man to outbursts of temper, another to social radicalism, a third to excesses of conservatism. The boss, who hires and fires him, writes recommendations for him, raises or lowers his pay, and otherwise disposes of his destiny is nothing but a soft civilian. The foreman thinks he is tough….. While the veteran was risking his life for his country, the boss and the foreman were having an easy time of it. The veteran cannot help reflecting that a smash of a gun-butt, or even a well- directed blow at the bridge of the nose … might easily dispose of such a man forever.”
~ World War I veteran Willard Waller
There is indeed an anger in us, those of us who have returned from one war or another. I can see this now and understand it better as the years have softened my hard edges. And I am not without a new appreciation for the relative easiness of my life in my own country, having borne witness to the abject poverty and hardships endured by those affected by war and violence in others. Yet still, I too continue to struggle with the adjustment to the peacetime life of the civilian. Too often, I find myself longing for the Army life, one that seemed so absent of complication. The anger I harbor toward the complexities of civilian life, the bureaucracy, and the politics, the subtle slights, are often too much to swallow. Though, perhaps the allure of my military time may be a thing more related to a nostalgia for my younger years.
As foreign as the civilian world often seems, we devise ways of coping with our new lives. In the earliest years after my return, I buried myself in various projects and pursuits at places of employment and my universities. Others have done the same, in an effort to suppress the gods of war whose voices rise up from time to time from the depths of our still fighting spirits. For those whom the call of the wanderer prevails, we run still farther to seek out the peace that alludes us. For me, I found myself back in the desert climates of North Africa in Sudan, finding a serenity in my work with both the Arab and African tribes.
Returning home again to the urban metropolises of my own people in Philadelphia and New York City, I worked jobs as suitable to my background as could be, in police agencies and corporate investigative roles. These were with people whom I had commonalties, some of who have also known life under the weight or muzzle of the gun. I studied with international students with which I shared the experience of having visited many of their countries and gained a new respect for the ideals and liberties that so many Americans take for granted and these students idealized. Some years later than this, I would teach my own students and answer their questions about my military experience with a newfound patience I would have not had years ago.
Thus, the following is a summary of my journey back from war and the difficulties I’ve encountered alone the way. And while it is my experience alone, it could also be seen as a microcosm of the experiences of many others like me, who have also tried and floundered along their own road back.
In February 2003, I was a 22-year-old sergeant with Connecticut’s 143rd Military Police Company, deployed as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Mustering out of Brainard Field, a little airstrip just south of Hartford, we were 150 soldiers, barely combat ready, even with the platoon of field-artillerymen that were volunteered by our state’s military department to flesh out our ranks. The second Mother of All Battles was what it was going to be. Saddam Hussein was going to gas us. Saddam Hussein and his psychotic sons were going to rain Scud missiles down on us filled with anthrax, filled with those ever-elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction. It was going to be a street-to-street fight, in every village and every city, like in Stalingrad, like in Berlin, to the last man. At our mobilization training at
Fort Drum in upstate New York, we prepared to fight in an Iraqi springtime in minus fourteen degrees Celsius and six feet of snow in the dead of winter.
We did our rifle qualifications knee-deep in ice-water and slush. Our rear-sight apertures glazed over and our elevation and windage knobs froze solid. Fingers were too numb to make adjustments. Targets disappeared. Bullets jammed in magazines. Bayonets stuck in sheaths. Lips turned purple against stark, pale faces as bodies quivered near hypothermic shock. We huddled in warming tents and sipped tepid coffee waiting for our turn to shoot. We fired and missed and re-fired and missed some more. We re-fired and missed until we tapped out our company’s ammunition allotment and had to hope for the best. We rode the old Blue Bird buses back to the barracks and took hot showers to thaw out our frozen bones. We ordered Chinese food and drank beers by the case while the snowdrifts piled up against the back door. We listened to the wind whistling through the cracks in the walls and huddled under woodland poncho liners in brown polypropylene thermals. We flipped through catalogues and purchased tactical flashlights, knives, thigh-holsters, armor plates, 550 cord, and 100 mile-per-hour tape, all the gear the Army wouldn’t give us that we thought we needed, that we thought might spare our precious lives.
Much of it is fragmented now. The long flight from upstate New York. The cramped shuttle bus ride from the tarmac to Camp Pennsylvania in the Kuwaiti desert. Sandstorms. Two hundred 5.56 rounds each, a Vietnam-era flak vest, a rifle, pistol, bayonet, and a Desert Storm era, fiberglass-walled Humvee. The long road north to Baghdad. Basra and Nasiriya. The rotors of the Apache gunships overhead. U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day” in my headphones. Occupying the grounds of Uday Hussein’s palace. 72-hour watches in the guard towers. Napping under the bridges. Guarding the old prison. Patrolling the market. Lamb burgers with egg and jibin, a traditional Arab cheese. The Iraqi police stations. The perpetually inebriated Iraqi cops. Snipers in the water towers. “Hawaiian-shirt-Fridays.” Improvised explosive devises hidden under dead dogs and piles of trash. The rumble of our heavy armor in the streets. The wails of the muezzins. The begging and pleading of the Iraqi children: Mister, give me dollar, Mister, give me water, Mister, give me food. The medevac choppers. Ramstein Air Force Base and Kaiserslautern. Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And then back home. Back to Connecticut; to Suburbia; and the metropolises.
The memories fade but the feelings are still visceral. They come flooding back. The heart races and the mouth goes dry; the palms sweat and the eyes scan desperate for an exit, any exit, blue sky, fresh air, any air. In the crowds of Times Square and Chelsea Market. In the Brooklyn Battery and Lincoln and Holland tunnels. At Penn Station and in the subways. In the casinos back home in Connecticut. In the Christmas markets far away in Cologne and Bonn. Because when I’m suffocating, only Baghdad is there. I am a destroyer. I am not myself.
All these years later, somehow, I always end up back in Baghdad. I used to break things. Whiskey glasses, vodka bottles, furniture, hearts. I am not proud of myself. In Paris, I rammed a Fiat into a Mercedes-Benz under the Arc de Triomphe. Like a Greek trireme. The guy blocked my lane and boxed me in so I floored it. I guess I meant to do it. I would have done it in Baghdad without a second thought. Convoy blocked? Ram it through. Simple solution. I was sorry after the fact for startling his little dog but for not much else. Blind white sheet of rage is what it was. What I was.
I try first to give people the benefit of the doubt. Not every driver is a hostile. I try to breathe through it and keep my shit together. I roll the windows down. I search different routes with my smartphone. I flip U-turns and drive in the restricted lanes and gun it through yellow lights. Sometimes that works. Usually I just end up pounding on the steering wheel and screaming at undeserving strangers and daring God to part the Red Sea before me. But God does no such thing. To the veteran, God is a fickle ally.
In terms of solving a mere traffic problem, that is apparently beyond the powers of the Almighty. Not here. Not over there. Not in Europe. Not in Africa. Not anywhere.
Sometimes I find myself wandering to the other side of the tracks in the early morning, after the gym, to Lackawanna Plaza, before I go back home to the decent side of town where I live now. In years previous it was Lackawanna Terminal, a busy local railway hub moving Montclair, New Jersey’s business class to their posh offices on Wall Street and Madison Avenue. Lackawanna is no longer a train station but an ugly plaza which is home to a number of third-rate retail shops and a third-rate grocery store frequented by third-rate citizens. Now it is an attraction for a number of vagrants and drug addicts and hanger-
arounds and petty thieves who piss in the shadows and harass and beg and disgust the proper folks hurrying past on their way to Bay Street Station, just two blocks east by the main firehouse.
I go there to get coffee from the Dunkin Donuts. I don’t even like the coffee there and I have excellent coffee at home that I like to grind myself and stare at it as it steeps in an expensive French press. But I go there because of the vagrants and drug addicts and hanger-arounds. I make a show of illegally parking my shiny black BMW in a blue-marked handicapped spot near the entrance where they like to linger, away from the rain or sun, depending on the weather. It is an arrogant display. I know that they resent my face. They hate where I come from and where I am going after I leave them. They hate everyone that I know and everything that I have. I am now with the haves and they are now with the have-nots.
I do this so that I can feel their hate. So that I can feel the sting of their glare and the distain in their eyes. I like to feel their hate in my blood and in my heart, in my pulse and in the adrenaline that pumps through my veins and rouses my nerves and fires the synapses of my brain and resonates in the marrow of my bones and sinew and cartilage and knuckles of my arms and wrists and fists. I want them to pound out their hate into my flesh, their hate and envy and greed and mine intermingled. I want to go again to the far edge, to the lonely mountaintop, to the barren desert, to the depth of the sea, to the nomad lands, where I must gasp for air and the light begins to fade from my eyes. I go to Lackawanna Plaza with the thought that I could possibly be attacked or accosted, ambushed or threatened, maybe even with a knife or a broken bottle, or a pistol; something grievous and unforgiving, once plunged or fired into flesh, never to be retrieved.
It would be easy to conclude that I want to be punished. That I feel shame or guilt for my sins, for my crimes, for my part in the war. Well, I do not. War is the most terrifying and thrilling thing that a soldier will ever get to experience in his lifetime, if he lives through it. And if he has lived through it, he will always miss it. And I miss it. I long for the thrill of it; in all of its senseless butchery and stupidity. My hands are not the soft hands of a writer. My face is not the clean face of a banker. I still have the rough hands and scarred face of a soldier. And soldiers fight.
I never actually have gotten out of my car, at Lackawanna. But I think about doing it. Sometimes I sit there for long stretches and think about doing it. Yet I do not, because I know that this part of me is a mere residual, a recurring shadow of the war still trying to consume me.
The Department of Veteran’s Affairs calls the post-war behaviors that I exhibit Adjustment Disorder: “Occupational and social impairment due to mild or transient symptoms which decrease work efficiency and ability to perform occupational tasks only during periods of significant stress, or; symptoms controlled by continuous medication: 10%.”
Ten percent is the token minimum disability granted by the VA to those of us veterans returning home early on in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Veterans who could sleep soundly no longer; who had difficulties getting back into the swing of their peacetime lives; who fought too much with our wives and spoke too harshly to our children; who drank too much in local dive bars and smoked too many cigarettes with too many townies; who could still put too much of a shine on their boots and cut too close of a shave and sober up just enough to work too many hours too many days a week; who could go through the motions of mowing lawns and facilitating birthday parties and barbeques and hanging up Christmas lights and everything else the mundanity of civilian life requires.
Adjustment Disorder is the category for those who struggle and fail at our professions, and watch stupidly as our relationships, our aspirations, and lives die slow gasping deaths. We abuse drugs, we drink heavily, we drive recklessly, we get arrested, we fight with police officers, we loathe ourselves, we reenlist, we break things, we break ourselves, we break other people, their hearts, and their trust, and their lives. Some of us do some of these things and some of us do all of these things.
A civilized society that is tasked with unteaching us those lessons from savage men learned in other savage wars: the curricula on killing and on accomplishing this task with extreme prejudice and violence of action. Herein lies the struggle: The rewiring of young minds once taught to value life, to be willing to destroy it. And to value it again once the war has ended. It is not so easy a thing. The village has chosen us to do its dirty work, but the village doesn’t quite know how to bring us back.
For those of us returned but still gone, for those of us still at war, who now battle only ourselves, we are ghosts who long for a world where success means just to stay alive, and failure means just to die. We must live in this new world. And we try, until we cannot.
This internal struggle going on within us, it will go on undetected. I may be the quiet one sitting next to you by the exit door on the commuter train in the starched shirt and tie pretending to flip through the New York Times. My khakis are neatly creased and my dress boots flawlessly shined. I am polite and alert, and my hair is nattily parted to the side. My easy gaze down the aisle from time to time does not seem abnormal. My gentle but firm stance by the exit door when the train is crowded does not offend. The silent torrent of mental calculations that I am making in my head as I assess my fellow passengers does not alarm you. My face is a shell game My expressions rarely mean what they seem to you. What is behind each one is a preconceived determination you will never guess. While yours is an inherent reaction to your emotions, mine are contrived. Mine are situational. I stone-face vagrants and subway singers. I smile warmly and offer my seat to expectant mothers and hold doors open for seniors. I laugh at the silly antics of small children at the Pret a Mangers and smile at the excitement of tourists as they point and wave at Lady Liberty when crossing the Hudson by ferry.
If you think I am seeing you though, you would be wrong. I am only seeing part of you. Mostly I am looking past you. You are a live body that I have reduced to a number. All of you have a number and your number corresponds to your survivability. Your number also corresponds to your usefulness to our survivability as a group. Some of you have a higher casualty probability through no fault of your own. You are sick. Or you are pregnant. Or you are obese. You will be slow when we will need to be fast. You will panic and seize up when we will need to be on the move. Some of you will be more useful by means of your occupation. Your hospital scrubs or security guard uniform indicate that you may be of higher value to the group than the stockbroker or the IT guy. The construction worker with the toolbox and large lunch bag also is of value. If you appear athletic and clear eyed and alert and not nose-down in your smartphone you may also be of value. You may be relied upon to carry wounded. You may also have some military or law enforcement training of your own. And this, this will increase both your own chance of survivability and that of the group’s.
I know you have a name. And a story. A job, a family, a life that you live and people that love you and who you love. I know all of these things, and I care about none of these things. If we are having a conversation about the weather this morning and the state of our political situation, we are not. While my mouth is moving and I am making the appropriate facial expressions, I am not actually there with you. My mind is far from the weather this morning.
My mind does not care about what is happening or not happening in Washington. I am focused on the men carrying backpacks and taking random pictures within the subway station. I am staring at the loose piece of luggage in the back end of the subway car. I am looking far beyond your face and obsessing over the wide sidewalks packed with tourists and New Yorkers making their way to work or school or home. I am looking at the dozens of cargo vans and SUVs driving by these sidewalks at any given time of the day. I am looking at the terraces above our heads and the rooftops and fire escapes winding up and down the sides of buildings.
But I will never tell you any of these things while I do them. You will never guess what I am thinking or the survivability number that I have assigned you. While you continue to blather on about property taxes and toll fare hikes and the quality of your cold brewed coffees, I am no longer here with you. Instead, I am measuring sectors of fire in the four blocks ahead of me and behind me. I am calculating the distance to the nearest place of cover in the event of incoming fire or bombardment. I am calculating the amount of roadway I will need to spin my hypothetical convoy around and reroute it to safety. I am watching cars as they run over stray bags of trash on Broadway and wondering which one will get the molten copper shape charge through the engine block.
The man selling Italian Ice from the cart outside the courthouse reminds me of the man selling ice in the market outside the airport in Baghdad. That man did not want to move his table back from the road and he angrily waved the knife he used to break chunks of ice off for customers at my team leader.
I thought for a moment I might have to shoot this man. I am glad the Italian Ice man does not also have a knife with him. I am glad I do not have to decide whether or not to shoot the Italian Ice man before he stabs my friend. I am glad to be thirty-six now and in New York and not twenty-two in Baghdad maybe about to end a man’s life who was having a shit day and who was just trying to feed his family.
These are the things I am focusing on while you prattle on about your new au pair’s great pair of perky little tits and your wife’s lack of interest in you and your stupid kid’s anger management issues on the lacrosse team. These are the things that I am thinking about as you whine about your accrued vacation time and your lack of time to take that vacation time due to your demanding schedule and those never-ending supervisory responsibilities.
The ever-increasing global demands that have you bouncing between time zones and that keep you from your personal training sessions at Equinox that you so need to de-stress. You talk to me as if I am like you. Or like I care about such things as you do. But I am not you. And I do not care about those things. I think your job is shit. I think your supervisory problems are shit. I think your au pair hates you and your wife hates you both. I think your kids are sociopathic little opportunists and when you stop catering to them, they will hate you all too. That’s what I think. These are the things that I am really thinking about in addition to your survivability number.
Well, if you really want to know, you probably won’t make it. You’re too soft. And out of shape. And lazy. And you’re entitled. Where that Mexican kid who schleps the cream cheese on your bagel every morning will fight to live and push aside his fears and pull that Haitian girl who you refuse to tip thirty cents in change out of that now burning bodega, you, you will not. Your number is a three. You are a three on the ten-scale. If you survive it will be sheer luck of the draw and nothing else.
In this participation prize type world in which we live in. In this world of comb over diplomacy and social media braggadocio. In this world of shin-splint excuses and capitalist superiority and privileged this color and underprivileged that, remember that all of this bullshit existence which you cherish is only possible because of those of us who walk among you. Who walk among you unseen and who nod somberly and look far beyond your vacation hours and your au pair’s tits and your wife’s animosity and only measure your worth by your survivability potential.
In the end, you are just a number. And the Mexican kid that spreads the cream cheese on your bagel who you can never remember his name, his number is likely higher than yours. Do not forget this.
Tip the Haitian girl her 30 fucking cents. At least you will die with a clear conscience. Try and do one good thing before they put you in the ground. Mean something to someone. To anyone. That quiet one you ramble to on the morning PATH train, to him you will mean nothing. To your wife and your kids and your au pair and your employees you will mean nothing. But mean something. At least be remembered fondly by someone.
So, know this. While you are in your executive suite with the view, fantasizing about that new 19-year-old intern, watching YouTube videos of your future luxury yacht, or talking about those recent gains due to your aggressive CrossFit protein regimen at the local Equinox, gloating over that high value account you just orchestrated for the firm, we are also here, we who walk among you, we who have rode the whirlwind. We who, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top.
Us, your lowly employees. Your Tax Credit Heroes, we look just like you in our crisp new suits and ties, crammed into our cubicles farms, put out to the proverbial civilian pasture. We report to you now instead of our sergeants and captains. We look like you now and answer to you for the moment, but we are not you. You see dollars and conquests, we see people who move about like drones, stagnant, miserable. We see false glory and pretense and lies. We see corporate bullshit about “adding value” and “books of business” and “takeaways” and we pity you. We pity you all because this is your entire life. This is the height of it, your existence. At the end of the day, you have only ever surmounted an Everest of zeroes on an Excel sheet.
So, in summary, I quit. I quit this silly job. I quit this silly charade. Take my suit and tie, stuff it full of your numbers and spreadsheets, and prop it up at my desk. I guarantee that my effigy’s productivity will be about the same. Or not. I won’t be there to listen to your quarterly reviews anyway. And don’t bother to look for me. While the most exciting part of your day is procuring your shitty mechanized coffee from the break room with the other drones, I’ll be gone – sun in my face, wind at my back, path uncharted. I am a leaf in autumn, falling. I am an arrow in flight, singing. I am a free man, without regret.
Patrick Mondaca served in Baghdad, Iraq with the 143rd Military Police Company in 2003. He holds a Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University and a MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, and USA Today. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey.