Thursday, October 06, 2005

Boots on the Ground and on My Mind

I HAVE JUST COMPLETED Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, his account of life as a U.S. Marine in general, and his experiences in Desert Shield/Storm in particular. Riveting stuff. They say you never leave the Corps, and in some ways, he never left the Persian Gulf, either.

I was in senior year of college during the first Gulf War, and a friend of mine, Rich, was in his third year at West Point. Army's football team played at my college in the season during the Desert Shield build-up. Hundreds of cadets came up via bus to cheer on their colleagues in cleats.

The usual Saturday tailgate broke all size records this time, it seemed, and folks welcomed the cadets with incredible generosity. Anywhere you walked through the parking lots or dorm commons surrounding the stadium, boys in gray were being fed and liquored up by tailgaters, cheered on by visiting parents, or flirted with by blushing Big East chickadees in love with a uniform. Keep in mind that few civilians stateside were able to get a true picture of the strength of the Republican Guard in Iraq, so for all we knew, the first couple hundred thousand troops would only be the initial wave of a Vietnam-like commitment, and potentially the military academies would be tapped for their cadets should the main line of boots be cut down. So these guys were being given a hopefully unnecessary sendoff for a war we all hoped they would not be called upon to fight.

They didn't have to, at least not that phase of things. Rich finished out his West Point years on U.S. turf. He got a little closer during his 5 compulsory years in the service, when he was posted in Egypt, but he never fired a shot in anger. As often happens with well-qualified people, he succeeded himself into a corner . . . and a little less than a year ago, Rich got his marching orders for Iraq, 13 years late but with great reluctance.

Because at this point, he had a wife and a newborn daughter at home.

I'm not writing this post to take a position on the war. What Jarhead made me think about was how Rich — once he returns from his year in Iraq — will relate to civilian life.

I have never been in the military, which actually interrupts a chain of service on the part of my male relatives going back to World War II. My father had no interest in guiding me toward the life, and with my mother remembering what effect Vietnam had on her brother, she did nothing to dissuade him. My eligibility for Selective Service expired this summer, although America would have to be attacked simultaneously by space aliens and underground mole people for the Draft Board to recruit this fat, nearsighted army of one. Short of that, I will not be called upon to serve. So I have no direct frame of reference on life in uniform.

But I have spoken to Rich, though, and reading Jarhead reminds me a lot of his outlook and his stories of military life. There is no doubt that Army life gave Rich discipline, self-esteem, and organizational prowess. When he left the Army and tried to fit into a couple of civilian jobs, I could see his frustration. We used to talk on the commute into the city, and I knew he missed having colleagues who could get a simple task right with one explanation, in an outfit that — though not without its charming little internal insanities — prided itself on getting the job done and finding a way when none existed. I could hear in his voice that he loved the Army and truly missed it.

Rich eventually acted upon his situation and rejoined the Army as a reservist. Amid getting married, he spent weekends and occasional weeks working at Picatinny Arsenal and flying helicopters — one of his specialties. Once, he got down low over a friend's house and kicked up waves on her lake. He was a happy boy. When he was called up, I was worried, but I knew they were selecting a man who had spent a good portion of his life becoming a thinking, careful soldier and a fine comrade. I had the chance to meet two of his classmates when he visited me in senior year of college, and it was clear they shared a bond that could sustain them through the bowels of Hell itself. So I also thought, Rich will survive Iraq and be an example to the men in his command. As cruel as it was to take him away from wife and baby, the Army was picking the right guy.

What I wonder about now is how Rich will reintegrate into the world when he returns. How will his year in Iraq have changed him? I know his wife has been in close contact with other wives from his unit, so she has a support group to deal with his absence. But do they also provide advice when helping to reorient someone who has been in the shit for a year back to normal living, among friends and not potential insurgents packing wads of C4 under their robes?

Anthony Swofford took the Marines, and the Gulf, back with him to the States. Rich will likely do the same with the Army to some degree we cannot yet know. I hope his journey home does not take longer than the plane flight, as it did for my uncle after he returned from Nam.

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