Monday, March 25, 2013

Local Veteran writes about the realities of war

Appreciation to Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran, Zackary Dryer for finding the strength to write the following first-person account of what he experienced and witnessed as a soldier.  Appreciation to the Austin American-Statesman for printing the piece yesterday in the Insight section of the Sunday, March 24, 2013 edition.  Zackary's descriptions of what happens in combat coincide with many other accounts I have read by and heard from war veterans.  If wars are ever to end, they will end partly because more soldiers like Zackary are willing to describe the horrors of war and militarism that are so hard to tell.  Please listen.

Veteran describes demons he brought home from Iraq, Afghanistan wars

By Zackary Dryer

Special to the American-Statesman

I’ve tried to write this a hundred times in the year since I folded up my uniforms for the last time and placed them neatly next to my pictures and awards in a beat-up footlocker out in the garage. Every attempt ended the same way, in disgust and a pile of balled-up papers. I would feverishly scribble until my hand felt as if it would fall off and then I would rip the sheet from my notebook and angrily toss the ball of lies and grandstanding to the floor. I would grumble off to a troubled and restless sleep, watching the parts I edited out, the truth, play out across the backs of my eyelids like a horrific movie stuck on repeat.

When a friend forwarded me a link stating that the Statesman was looking for Iraqi war vets to tell their stories, I decided to take Hemingway’s advice and just tell the truth. He always said that all you needed was one true word to start and then just continue from there. So I put down all the crutches I have used to prop myself up over the last year and decided to figure out what my word was. After several days of trying to ignore the one word that kept creeping into my head, hoping a better word would come along, I gave in and wrote it down. It stared back at me and I had to look away. It sat there quietly in big black bold-face letters, ringing in my head like a piano falling down a staircase, until I tossed it a desk drawer, disgusted with myself.

The word found its way behind my sleep-heavy eyelids and tortured me until morning. When I woke I pulled it out and stared at it alone in my study and cried: “MONSTER.” I wiped my eyes and hurried my 9-year-old daughter off to the bus stop, then waved goodbye as my wife and son drove away. Then I took my place behind my cluttered desk and thought about the children of Iraq.

The smaller children got quickly trampled underfoot as the large groups of malnourished kids chased bags of colored candy, connected by string to the hands of soldiers, as our convoys clicked steadily down the road. The gunners would let the children get almost on top of the bag before pulling the string taught and swiping the candy away. It was just one of the many nasty-spirited little games we played when the desert sun was unbearably hot. We’d save up pork meals from our rations, toss them to begging children and watch them devour the forbidden meat. We’d pour the last quarter of our water bottles onto the desert ground and laugh as parched old men watched with a longing in their eyes and no pride on their faces. We’d smash out the windows of their cars and beat them with our rifles when they didn’t obey our orders to move, shouted in a language they didn’t understand. We’d rifle through their homes and bedrooms as they sat, zip-tied, with their frightened wives and crying children hanging around their necks. We laughed in their faces acting as if they were so backwards and we superior in every way. We were monsters, and now I have to live with it.

It was 2004 and I was in my early 20s. I was in an artillery unit that was hastily retrained for infantry/military police combat duty. I was in the middle of downtown Baghdad with the full might of the U.S. Army at my back and a rifle in my hand that I thought made me a God. We did assume some of God’s responsibilities. We decided who lived and who died, who got to go home and hug their children and who got to walk away with all their teeth. We were self-appointed Gods, and we were monsters.

I’d like to blame it on my leadership. “They failed; they should have controlled us instead of laughing or just ignoring it,” I would yell in righteous indignation, but that would be a lie. Because on my latter deployments to Afghanistan, when it came time for me to be the leader I should have been, I sat just as idle and laughed just as loud as a new wave of soldiers found just as malicious ways of taking out their aggression on the locals in a different but never changing war. I’d like to blame it on the desert heat, to say that the unforgiving Iraqi sun had fried our brains and caused some sort of mental lapse that absolves us of our behavior, but that too would be a lie.

The truth is that there were all too many reasons that we acted like pieces of human trash towards people we looked at as less than garbage, but none that absolve us.

We were angry and we took that anger out on the only people that the world had placed beneath us. We were angry that we were in the middle of a desert fighting a war while our friends were back home. They were drinking Coca-Cola and playing video games as we dodged bullets. Some of us were angry that our wives and girlfriends were across the ocean looking for comfort from strangers while we watched our trucks burn on the side of the road, ripped apart by buried explosives and filled with what was left of our freshly expired comrades. We did it because we were hot and tired, hungry and lonely. Some of us did it to fit in, to be cool. Some of us did it just to make each other laugh, to keep each other from swallowing our rifles. But we did it, and now we have to live with it. We did it because we were scared to death and laughing at someone for having it worse than us made us forget that for just a few seconds. I did it because if I could make their life worse than mine, mine might not seem so bad. But none of those reasons are excuses, and now I have to live with it.

Now that I am a grizzly war vet, after a career ending injury on a dusty Afghan road, I only think about it when I am walking through the gas station on the way to the cooler and pass the Skittles sitting accusingly on the shelf in their little rainbow-colored cardboard box.

Now that I am a grizzled war vet, after a career ending injury on a dusty Afghan road, I only think about it when I am walking through the gas station on the way to the cooler and pass that same brand of candy we used to toss to the Iraqi kids, sitting accusingly on the shelf in their little rainbow-colored cardboard box. I only think about it when I see children or old people, or the sky, or the ground. I only think about it when I am sitting awake when the sun comes up or when I am asleep. I only think about it when I bury my tear-streaked face into my hands and confess it all to my therapist over and over. I only think about it when I am writing this.

Now that I am beginning my 30s, with a medical retirement and a war-wasted body, I only think about it when my back hurts every morning or my knees pop when I walk. I only think about it when I get my check from the VA every month, payment for a job well done. Luckily the VA quit sending paper checks; an automatic deposits for atrocities committed are much easier to ignore.

I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish I was one of the few that stood up like a man and wasn’t bothered about carrying the burden of being labeled a weakling or a “Haji-Hugger,” or worst of all a traitor to my brothers in arms. I wish I wasn’t one of the truly weak ones who took our anger out on the people the media would have you believe we liberated.

I hope my children never see this – that they grow up with the illusion that their daddy was a hero, a liberator of the Iraqi people, and not something dangerously closer to an oppressor. I hope no one ever treats them the way we treated the children of Iraq. I hope they don’t have to go fight those same children we mistreated because we turned them against us. I hope those children know, that I know, that I was a monster and that I hate myself for it, regardless of how many therapists tell me that I was just a child doing a man’s work, or that “War is hell.”

I spend my days now hobbling around with a cane when I am sure no one I is around to see it and grinding my teeth flat against the pain when they are. It hurts when I sit too long, or when I stand, or when I lie down, or walk. It hurts when I stand at the bus stop and wait for my daughter to come home and I think about what her life would have be like if she had been unlucky enough to have been born there. What if she was standing too close to me when I watched a platoon sergeant’s arm get blown off or a friend’s head get ripped in half? Would I have taken my anger out on her? What if she had slept or gone to school in one of the buildings that we filled with bullets or demolished with bombs? That’s what I’m thinking about when people think I am just lost in my shell-shocked head, staring blankly out into the sky.

I spend my nights reading Hemingway, Vonnegut, and O’Brien trying to infer how they forgot and moved on after war, but that´s a lie too, because I don’t think that is completely possible. I try to ignore the war, try to forget, to push it so far down that it’s just a bitter taste in my mouth, but it won’t go. When I think I have it licked, when I’ve bent and folded it as neatly as possible and force it into that beat-up footlocker in the garage, it seeps out from the hinges and key hole. It slithers silently across the hardwood floor and climbs up into bed with me. It startles me awake, wide-eyed and panting, just reminding me that it is my lifelong companion. Then we sit there together in the dark, just me, the war, and my wife who looks up at me with pitying eyes and rolls over to go back to sleep, well aware that my night’s sleep is over and that I can’t, I won’t, tell her why.

The war is with me always. It can’t be drowned, Hemingway proved that. It can’t be medicated into submission. It can’t be covered up with tattoos or a cheerful disposition. It’s the reason the person I was before is dead and gone and it’s the reason he can never come back no matter how hard I wish he would.

Now it’s just me and my good old buddy the war, sitting silently alone in my study together writing this down with my aching back and popping knees. And so we sit, trying to figure out how we all coexist in the same brain, the man, the myth, the monster, and the war.

When people ask me what I think about the war, I fight back the feeling to tell them exactly where to go. I feed them whatever song and dance I think they are looking for, try to change the subject, and move along before they see through the illusion. I try to remember that it is not their fault they want to know; humans are a curious bunch. I try to remember they are just trying to figure out their feelings on the war and that they have to view it vicariously through me. I try to remember they have no idea how it feels to sit in a room with the memory of war, and enough self-loathing to fill up an ocean.

I hope someday I will look back on this little piece of writing and laugh at how fresh the wounds were, marvel at how I could ever have felt so lost, and put it back in its folder, but I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel about the war yet. We haven’t decided. Hopefully someday the war will be content to gather dust with the uniforms and pictures tucked away in the garage. Hopefully it will sit there and wait to be discovered by my grandkids, mementos of a past I can barely recall when they ask me to tell them stories sitting in my rocking chair. Hopefully someday I will be able to look people in the eyes and not have to be scared they will recoil in horror when they see the war sitting just behind my eyes. Hopefully then I’ll sleep through the night.

And that’s it, ugly as it sounds, that’s the truth. It happens every time, from the Trojan War to the Iraqi desert, that’s the story of war and that’s the truth. Anyone that tells you that a word of it isn’t true is lying, but not to you, to themselves. They aren´t ready to admit it’s true or they weren’t there. Every single soldier that has ever truly been at war has heard, seen, condoned, facilitated, ignored, or participated in the heinous acts I have confessed to you here, or worse. Even now, after getting as close as I ever have to telling the whole story to anyone who wasn’t there, I’ve held back many of the worst bits. Some horrors we will take to the grave with us and lie to the Devil about. But at least I tried and at least maybe tonight I can get some sleep.

Zackary Dryer was medically retired as an Army staff sergeant in 2012 because of injuries from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He lives in Austin with his wife, Sarah, and two young children. He is attending the University of Texas, hoping to earn an advanced degree in English, then teach with a focus on post-World War II American literature and write about his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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