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.
With one finger, I pushed around a bunch of cheap rings in my little jewelry box looking for something I wanted to wear, but none of them looked quite right. And that’s when the annoying, eerie feeling came over me again …
My whole life, I’ve worn silver. I was never a gold girl. I was one of those teenagers who had a ring on every finger. Cheap, artisan, hippy silver wrapped around some earth stone. Onyx, amethyst, amber—you get the idea. Except, none of the rings in my little box looked like that. They just looked like junky costume jewelry, and for a second, I got totally aggravated. When I left for Iraq, silver was still the cheap metal, and I had a fist full of rings. When I came back from Iraq, silver had skyrocketed right out of the artisan’s price range, and at the same time, my small collection of it had mysteriously disappeared.
I of course didn’t wear a bunch of rings on my fingers while I was deployed; I stuffed them into a bag and knew that they’d be one of those small comforts that would help me feel like a normal human being again when I came home. They were one of the first things I put on when I left on leave, and they went right back into the bag when I returned to my uniform and walked back onto the plane. I know I put them in a zippered pocket where I thought they’d be safe, and then I forgot about them for another eight months or so.
When it was time to pack up and go home for good, I tore apart every bag I owned looking for them, but they were gone. It’s possible they were stolen, but not likely. The best I can figure is that I probably lost them clearing customs when I had to dump everything out onto the table, right down to the lint in my pockets. I can’t imagine not paying special attention to the rings, and to this day, I still check in a pocket of a bag I think I might have missed the last 100 times or so I checked because I just can’t believe I would have lost them, but that’s the best guess I’ve got.
I wasn’t aggravated poking around my jewelry box, however, because I lost my rings. It’s true, I don’t even want to think about how much silver I’ve misplaced over my lifetime with silver trading at $35 an ounce right now, but that’s not why I was aggravated. I was aggravated because I couldn’t—still can’t—remember, for the life of me, what a single one of those rings looked like. I’m not even sure how many I had. Three, four maybe. Maybe more. It’s been that way with my memory ever since I’ve been back, which is particularly frustrating for me because I’ve always had a memory like an elephant. My friends used to call me the human tape recorder. They would call on me to settle arguments if I had been present for a conversation that was in dispute because I could reiterate to everyone concerned exactly what they said. Now my husband has to tell me what I said half the time.
I recently read in Scientific American that one of the fun consequences of extreme stress is that your brain turns to mush. Well, not the whole brain—just the more highly evolved frontal lobe. You know, the smart part of your brain. Made perfect sense to me. No matter how hard I wrack my noggin, I can’t remember what those damn rings looked like, and standing in front of my little jewelry box, trying to remember, that’s when the familiar eerie feeling washed away any anger or frustration I was experiencing and replaced it with a terribly unsettling question …
What if I never actually came back? Suddenly I felt like a ghost running over the same ground over and over again, looking for the locket her lover gave her, tearing through the same drawers over, and over, and over, looking for something that isn’t there, that she can’t quite remember how or where she lost it.
I used to get the feeling a lot right after we came home. My husband and I talked about it a few times. We moved into my parent’s house when I was 7 months pregnant with my son. My parents were still down in Florida for the winter, so we had the place to ourselves for the next couple months until the birth. I have no idea if the T.A.P.S. groupies would tell you that being pregnant somehow attracts paranormal activity or not, but I can tell you some strange things happened in the house in those few months.
There were your usual, run-of-the-mill, spooky moments, like when my sister brought her dog over, and he climbed up onto the couch and started sniffing the wall. A week later, my husband took a picture of me sitting on the same couch, and there were crazy broad streaks of discoloration on the wall behind me. Maybe not so spooky we had to move into a hotel, but spooky enough that I didn’t want to sit on that couch so much anymore.
Then there were the crazier events, like the giant crashing noise that woke us up out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night on more than one occasion. If you’ve ever seen Paranormal Activity, it was freaky close to that (and it was before the movie ever came out, so I can’t even blame it on the power of suggestion!) These were the types of events that gave the house that creepy, wintery, otherworld sort of feeling, especially in the middle of the night, and left my husband and I sometimes wondering, what if we never actually made it back?
I have to stop here because I feel so guilty sharing this experience. We, of course, did come back, and so many soldiers didn’t. We had friends who never got to come home with us. But writing has always been my release, and this feeling is so haunting, I feel compelled to write about it. We are so blessed that we not only made it home, but we made it back without any serious injuries to speak of. Still, when we first returned, in the creepy dark hours of that first winter, sometimes we weren’t so sure.
When we finally did talk to each other about these surreal moments in virtual purgatory, the next natural question to arise after, “What if we never actually made it back,” was “What really happened then?” If we were circling through my parent’s sad empty house together, like the undiscerning ghosts in The Others, then the logical assumption was that we went out together, but when? The answer to that question always brought me back to the same event …
The patrol base where I met my husband on most days had no running water. There was a shower closet that worked on and off, (more off than on), and portable hand washing stations, but that was it. We ate field chow out of a kitchen trailer, relieved ourselves in outhouses (not porta-potties—wooden outhouses), and brushed our teeth with bottled water. Seeing as I was the only female on the patrol base, even when the showers were working, I rarely got to use them, so most of the time I punched holes in the caps of water bottles and improvised.
The upside to this living situation was that once a week, every team got to go on refit. We got one day off to grab our laundry and drive up the highway to the nearest FOB (forward operating base), which happened to be another shithole, but it was a shithole with running water and laundry services. The food there wasn’t much better than the field chow, but the showers worked and there was no chance of being called out on an unexpected night mission.
There were empty tents with sleeping bag cots set aside for soldiers on refit. The same people generally took the same tents, and sense I was the only female tasked out to the unit, there was no female tent. Technically, I’m sure I was supposed to find a tent full of gals, but I always took a cot in the tent with my team. The general routine was drop the laundry, grab some chow, fund the insurgency by buying a cheap bootleg copy of an American film from the Haji mart, go back to the tent to watch said DVD on someone’s laptop, and try to ignore the moving shadow-head of the guy sitting in the row in front of the camera man.
One night I fell asleep curled up next to my husband. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of mortar rounds. I awoke in half a daze, half a panic, and shook him hard.
“Doc! Wakeup! Incoming!”
He put his hand on my head and told me to go back to sleep.
“It’s outgoing,” he assured me. The tent was pitch black, and I wasn’t even entirely sure where I was. Was I on the PB? Back at my old FOB? On the refit FOB? Where had I fallen asleep?
“Are you sure?” I ask. “I didn’t think we were near the firing line.”
At my home-base (which I loved and actually began to think of as home by the time we left the country), I worked in a trailer that was on the edge of the FOB and butted up right next to the artillery firing line. When our guys shot outgoing mortars into the fields where their guys were setting up to fire at us, the kickback from the tanks would shake the whole trailer. Once the blast was so loud, I was certain it was incoming, and I ran right out of the can toward the bunker.
But at the refit FOB, the tent was no where near the firing line, or at least I didn’t think it was. The tent was in the middle of the FOB, and I never heard outgoing so loud that I mistook it for incoming. Still, the sleepy medic promised me,
“I’m sure. It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”
And so that’s what I did. I buried my head in the comfort of his chest and melted back into sleep.
Almost exactly one year later, now married and expecting, I looked at my husband one lonely evening and said,
“What if it wasn’t outgoing that night? What if it was incoming?”
It’s a funny thing. I can’t tell you what he said after that because no matter how hard I wrack my noggin, I just can’t remember.
365 is a blog that honors vets and their stories. This is one story from a female Marine who served in Iraq. I had a similar experience with a little girl while out on patrol, and I totally agree it was the highlight of my service. In the Army, we didn’t cover our faces while serving in Iraq, but with all my gear on, my sunglasses and my helmet, the locals often just assumed I was a man! One day while out on patrol with my team, a little girl ran up to the medic behind me (who is now my husband), pointed at me and asked in broken English, “Girl? She girl?” My husband laughed and said yes, that is a girl, and the little girl followed us around the whole village for the rest of the day, staring and smiling in awe. That was by far one of the best memories I have of Iraq!
Rockdale native Katherine Davis confessed, “I’ll admit being a spoiled brat in my younger days, but after high school I realized I needed to transform my life. After talking to recruiters I knew the toughest challenge would be the Marines.”
OnJune 06, 2005Davisboarded a Marine bus atFt.GillemforParris Island,SC.
“My mom cried,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Katherine, what have you done, girl?’”
Davis recalled Parris Island. “I’d never been screamed at so much in my life, and I don’t remember seeing a bed for 2 days. The training was rough and crude, but I wasn’t going to quit, I wanted to be a marine.”
Ironically, her peaceful moments came on the rifle range. “Nobody messed with you there, they couldn’t. I had time to collect myself.” With a fear of heights, the rappel tower was her biggest challenge. “I remember the drill instructor, a woman I swear was bi polar…
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Okay so in my late night haste and excitement that such a targeted PR campaign was created to finally bring attention to a subject that has disturbed me for years (child Armies in general, not Joseph Kony per say), it seems I probably should have done my vetting before I put my support behind it. I had read the following AP article about the video before I posted it, and while it does refer to some of the criticisms against Invisible Children, overall it describes the campaign as something I would support …
There was a lot of discussion about the campaign on Facebook, but it took me a while to get around to watching the video. I admit, I was elated enough that someone was finally talking about child armies on a national level that I quickly reblogged without critical analysis. But luckily before I ran out and bought a bracelet, I thought I might investigate a little further. Needless to say, I haven’t brought a bracelet. The following is a fairly well-balanced look at some of the criticisms that have been launched against Invisible Children since the KONY 2012 video has gone viral …
This is a much more critical review …
I don’t know if there is any physical evidence that Invisible Children provides monetary or any other kind of support for the Ugandan Army, but the accusation is certainly enough to give a potential supporter pause. While my uncharacteristic haste in throwing my support behind something without doing my due diligence is admittedly embarrassing, it is a good reminder of why I am NOT a political activist. Whether or not it is a scam, however, I still think it’s a brilliant PR campaign that, if nothing else, is drawing attention to a part of the world we all too often find it convenient to ignore.
I originally reblogged the video myself with the following statement:
“I have always held the belief that as the world’s greatest and largest military superpower, America has a moral responsibility and an obligation to intervene in cases of genocide and the mass slaughter of innocent civilians, especially children. I feel our failure to intervene in Rwanda and other atrocities is a scar on our history. This is a position that has gotten me into heated debates with fellow soldiers. After serving in an area of the world where genocide was taking place, I came to a new understanding that even in cases of genocide, it’s not so easy as we can just step in and fix it, but when children are being murdered and drafted into Armies and made to do unspeakable things, we MUST intervene.
Invisible Children is on a very specific mission. Thanks to their efforts, the United States (they claim for the first time in history) has committed special forces to find a war criminal in a conflict that, at least on the surface, appears to have nothing to do with U.S. security. They need every citizen’s help to accomplish the mission. Please watch this for the details and spread the word.”
In the interest of full disclosure, I added the parenthetical information and the “at least on the surface” about 3 minutes after I first published it. That’s about how long it took for my elation to wear off and for the skeptic to start speaking up. The film contains a number of disconcerting features, like the producer’s over-the-top conversation with his toddler son explaining what Kony has done to other little boys like him, which was sensationalist and didn’t really seem to serve any purpose at all, and the above referenced assertions about U.S. interests (or lack thereof) that I felt I needed to qualify almost immediately after publishing them.
So why, then, was I so quick to jump on the band wagon? Because genocide and atrocities committed against children have always been a vile evil that grips me at my core, and anything that raises awareness on the subject is a good thing, ulterior motives or none. I have not done enough research to determine if I think the allegations against Invisible children are true or not, but if they are true, then there’s a certain irony and poetic justice about the organization creating what may turn out to be one of the most successful social media PR campaigns to raise awareness to their own shady existence. What do you think?