Some time ago, I thought about writing a post titled “Have You Ever Been In a Firefight?” It is one of the many annoying and sometimes infuriating questions I often receive as a female veteran, but this post isn’t about me. It is Memorial Day Weekend, and some recent events have made me realize that this title is also quite appropriate in honor of many of the fallen soldiers I deployed with who never got to come home.
I understand that for most civilians and those who have never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, what happens over there is largely a mystery. There is a general sense that wars are not fought the way they used to be, that there is no front line, that there is no cozy safe spot in the rear, that the military is now one almost fully integrated fighting force of men and women (does anyone remember the WACs?), but the details of the modern day battlefield are largely left out of the public discourse.
As a female veteran, I am often asked questions like, “You were in a safe area though, right?” and “Yeah but you’ve never really been in a firefight or anything, right?” These questions are infuriating for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons alike. The first question is mindboggling because the answer is an emphatic “No! I was not in a ‘safe’ area!” The second question makes me want to spin my head around and spit green pea soup because wile the answer is also “No, I have never been in a firefight,” it is usually followed with the clarifying statement, “and neither have most of the men I served with.” The men, of course, don’t usually get asked, which makes the question all the more infuriating. But all of these inquiries are understandable and easily forgiven when they come from civilians who have been largely kept in the dark about the alternate universe that is OIF and OEF. As far as enraging points of view go, these more-or-less well intended, albeit naïve, perspectives of the role of women in the modern-day combat environment pale in comparison to the inexcusable jockeying for street credit that often takes place amongst veterans and service members. Allow me to elaborate …
There is sometimes a tendency for combat veterans to disparage each other’s service based on MOS (military occupational specialty—basically your job description) or whether or not someone has gone outside the wire (essentially left the comfort of the base). While it is understandable that a civilian who knows little of the details of the modern battlefield would measure the effects of combat in terms of things like firefights, service members and veterans should know better.
I recently, just this weekend of all weekends, read something written on a military Facebook page I follow that almost sent me through the roof. It was written by a woman who referred to herself as a “milispouse” who was angry and venting about her daughter’s custody battle with her ex son-in-law who was discharged from the Army for malingering. According to this woman, the former soldier has violent mood swings that he claims are the result of combat-related PTSD. While I have no issue with her anger over his misrepresentation of his service (apparently this veteran tells people he’s still in the Army and goes to the recruiting station to talk to potential recruits), what I was aggravated by was her commentary on his deployment. It went something along the lines of “[He has] no combat time. None. Downrange, yes. Combat, no.” She went on to say that he spent most of his deployment on guard duty and whining about getting yelled at.
This was a civilian who wrote this mind you. She herself has never been deployed. She established her own authority to speak on the subject by stating that her father was a Vietnam Vet and her husband is an infantryman with multiple deployments under his belt. She has attended many funerals in recent years. In her words, “So I get to call a douche a douche, fair?”
Again though, her opinion I can blow off. The string of some 50+ comments that followed, most of them validating her perspective of POGs (people other than grunts—non-infantry) I cannot forgive so easily. Someone who has never stepped foot in a war zone gets this perspective from somewhere, and that somewhere can only be from other service members. I initially kept silent on the thread, but all the bashing of FOBBITS (people who never stepped foot off the forward operating base while they were deployed) that ensued following her comment slowly ate at me over the course of the night and right into the next morning.
It didn’t bother me because I was a FOBBIT—I wasn’t. I may have never been in a firefight, but I lived on the most underserved patrol base in our area of operations, I went out on foot patrol daily, I spoke to more Iraqis than Americans while over there, and I drove up and down one of the deadliest highways in Iraq on a regular basis for months. Don’t get me wrong—my exposure to “combat” was extremely limited, but that had a lot more to do with luck and timing than it did my proximity to the line. So the whole thing didn’t bother me because I was a FOBBIT; it made me sick to my stomach because almost every person I knew who died over there was. After waking up with the dialogue still on my mind, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet. This is the comment I left on the page (I was pretty upset when I wrote it, so please excuse my flowery language):
“I don’t usually comment on this page, but this has been bothering me since I read it. I’m sure your son in-law is a DB, and I’m not arguing that he wasn’t a shit bag soldier, but Taylor is right. You don’t get to call a douche a douche. I’m not denying you your insights or experiences—your relationships to your husband and your father and the Army in general give you an insiders perspective on the war and the military that most civilians will never understand, I will give you that, but it still doesn’t give you “street credit” (for lack of a better term) to judge whether or not someone’s deployment makes them a combat veteran or not. It’s bad enough when soldiers do it to each other; it’s unacceptable when it comes from people who have never deployed (civilians or soldiers).
I know infantrymen have a tendency to think they are the only ones who experienced combat, but the dick swinging contests amongst veterans have got to stop. My first month in country, an interrogator (FOBBIT) was blown up by a Katyusha while she was asleep in her can. I ran into our company clerk (FOBBIT)the next day, who happened to be in the vicinity and was one of the soldiers who tried to put out the fire. I never saw anyone more shook up than he was trying to tell me how he couldn’t get the site of the blown up pieces of what was left of her body out of his head. Six months into my tour, I was on a FOB that got hit with 14 Katyushas in one attack. Some poor kid (DB?) on extra duty got blown up doing police call in front of the TOC. My team and I were huddled up next to a T-wall during that attack, and we were pretty sure we were going out with him. Our vehicle got totaled by a Katyusha later that night. It was on one side of the T-wall, we were on the other. One lousy month before we got to go home, an MP I spent my first 3 months in country sharing a tent with stuck her 9 mm in her mouth and blew her brains out. One fucking month left. One of the guys on my team who lived next to her stood guard by her door for what he said felt like an eternity until her body was removed from her can. These soldiers—FOBBITS and DB’S among them—gave their lives in a war zone that less than 1% of Americans have seen. And before I get attacked for my service, I wasn’t a FOBBIT. I lived on a PB and went out on foot patrol every day with an artillery unit tasked out as infantry. I made routine runs up and down Route Tampa, but I would never tell someone who never went outside the wire that they weren’t really a combat vet. My husband was a line medic. He lives every day with not only the effects of watching his brothers die, but being the one who wasn’t able to save them. He would never tell a FOBBIT that their service didn’t count as much as his, and a civilian has no place evaluating what someone did or did not do while they were deployed.
It’s Memorial Day Weekend. Like I said, only 0.5% of Americans have contributed to the wars of this last decade. 99.5% of the population has absolutely no idea what it is like to be over there. We shouldn’t be competing for honors or who has the right to claim PTSD and who doesn’t. I will be spending this Memorial Day Weekend remembering the soldiers I knew and who never got to come home with us, FOBBITS and DB’s alike. D__, I am truly sorry for what you’re going through. I know custody battles are ugly and vicious, and I have no doubt your son-in-law is the dirt bag you describe him to be, but his dishonorable discharge speaks for itself. Any commentary you have to add about his time in Iraq is just going to make you look bad, not him.”
If my descriptions of the fallen come off as overly vivid or blunt, it is not intended to disrespect or disparage the memory of these soldiers in any way. My vulgarity is intended only to emphasize the point that FOBBITS are sheltered from neither PTSD nor death itself. Surprisingly, the only response I’ve received so far is from the milispouse. To her credit, she didn’t reply, but she did “like” my comment, so I guess I managed to get my point across without offending the person I was addressing (this may be a first for me!)
I often think of Vietnam and World War II and I am in total awe of what those men endured. I simply can’t fathom it. I don’t understand how anyone, no matter how good a soldier, made it off the battlefield alive. Just knowing some of the fears and anxieties I experienced during my deployment, which was like a trip to Disneyland compared to the wars of previous generations, I cannot imagine going through that without being utterly gripped with fear. I am a religious woman, but I still have to wonder, how much of their fate was determined by dumb luck? If the veterans of my generation are engaged in a pissing contest, I’m pretty sure we all loose.
My grandfather was an E5 (sergeant) who served in Germany during World War II, but he never spoke of the war. My mother said he was the strangest man she ever met. Never really connecting the dots to his service, she thought he suffered from depression. He was very successful in life and his marriage, but he had no hobbies, no interests. He sat in his chair, and he went for long walks. He was good with small children and enjoyed his grandkids, right up until we got a little older and started to talk like little people. Then he kind of lost interest. I always thought the way my mother described him was strange. It never even occurred to me that he had PTSD until a few years ago when my brother said he thought grandpa was shell shocked. Now that I’m a veteran, it doesn’t seem strange at all. Now I understand. War takes something from those who survive it, and that hole cannot be filled, but only augmented with the memories of those who did not.