Things We Should Not Forget

I go to Arlington on Veterans’ Day when I am in Washington, but in Brazil I have no place like that. I don’t go for the ceremonies anyway, but rather to remind myself of the debt of gratitude we owe to those who defended our freedom, some at the cost of their own lives.  That I can do anywhere.

My father and most of the men of his generation were veterans. My generation contains many fewer.  The all-volunteer military means that service is concentrated, often among families or places with tradition of military service.  Our military resembles U.S. society in general. The poorest groups in society are significantly under-represented in the military, probably because they more often lack the basic qualifications, such as HS diplomas and clean criminal records. The very rich don’t seem to enlist in great numbers, but contrary to popular conceptions, the wealthier 40% of the population is overrepresented.  So the military tends to be middle-America. It is also a little more rural and more southern (the South accounts for 40% of new recruits) than the general population.  Both blacks and non-Hispanic whites are slightly overrepresented; Asians and Hispanics are not represented as many as their numbers would imply.  Some people speculate that it is because these communities contain many immigrants who have not yet fully integrated into U.S. society. Native-Americans (i.e. Indians), although they make up a small percentage of the American population, are well-represented in the U.S. military.  

I didn’t know very much first-hand about military in combat situations until I spend my year with the Marines in Iraq. (I tried to enlist after college, but I was kept out by a diagnosis of an ulcer when I was sixteen. I don’t think it was correct, but it kept me out.)  I spent much of my time talking to senior officers (majors, colonels and generals) and I know that skewed my perceptions. These guys were very intelligent and disciplined. I was proud to be among in their company and to be more or less accepted.  I say “more or less” because Marines have a very strong circle that I don’t believe any non-Marine can enter.    

I also spent a lot of time with ordinary Marines. The thing that was most admirable about them was how they took responsibility. The twenty-year-old in charge of the vehicle commanded it. I put my life in their hands and had confidence in them. When I was their age, I had responsibility for the French fries at McDonald’s and didn’t do such a good job even at that. Young Marines are amazing.   

I heard on the radio that veterans were having trouble finding jobs back home and I have talked to Chrissy about this. The problem evidently is that military job classifications don’t translate well with civilians ones. The guy that saved lives in Iraq lacks the formal certifications to do the same thing in the back home.   

There is a general problem of translating experience. Life was intense in Iraq. We worked as a team and had a feeling of community against shared risk. When you come home, nobody understands what you did and you really cannot explain it to those who have not been there. When I look back, I think it took me a few months, maybe longer, to readjust and I was lucky to have a stable family life and a good job. The scary thing is that at the time I didn’t perceive the problem. When you are in the desert, you idealize coming home. Nothing can live up to that ideal.  Ordinary life is sometimes harder than extraordinary challenges and hardships. 

I was lucky in Iraq. I got there in September 2007, just as the war was winding down. I remember rolling into Haditha soon after I arrived. It was still smoking from the fighting. Within a few months, we could walk in the market-place among friendly people, grateful for the order we had helped establish. It was an unbelievable change. It also meant that fewer people were getting hurt and killed. But still it happened.

When we lost somebody, they would declare “River City Charlie”. Routine communications were cut until the next of kin were contacted. Just writing that phrase chokes me up. I think of the promising young men killed.  I truly dislike the feeling, but I want never to forget.  There was one young man, called Aaron, who I particularly remember. I didn’t know him personally and I didn’t see him killed, but listening to his service and talking to his friends made a deep impression. He was a military policeman working with Iraqi security forces in the town of Hit, about Alex’s age at the time. He liked to lift weights, like Alex too. I think his similarity to Alex is what made it touch me so much. He joined the Army in a time of war, knowing he might be sent in harm’s way, wanting to serve his country and hoping to acquire some skills that would be useful later in life.   

Colonel Malay and I went to Hit to talk with Aaron’s his colleagues. I remember the day, the setting sun, the concrete barriers, the smell of burning garbage, and of course the ubiquitous dust. They were young and upset about what had happened.  They said that Aaron had gotten out of his vehicle and bent down to stretch.  Everybody does that when they get out of the confined space in a HUMVEE or MRAP. Somebody shot him from a down an alley and ran off. The guy got away and we never found out who it was. It was the “odd angry shot,” a surprise. Hit was relatively safe.  It was a war zone, but there was not much war left in it. I felt safe when I walked around on the streets and I am sure Aaron did too.  

I am conflicted about this memory. In some ways, I have no right to it; I have intruded in the grief of others and the one loss has come to symbolize many things to me over a year of my life. Years later I am working to remember a person I never knew. I wrote a note to his mother, sharing my condolences explaining the situation. She told me that it was important not to forget her son and said she appreciated my remembrance. I appreciate her “permission” and I am happy if my very small contribution eases her grief. I am getting a lot more.  It helps me remember things I should not forget.