MS 1547/1340 words
Jan. 1, 2008
Harley L. Sachs
2545 SW Terwilliger Blvd.
Portland, OR 97201
Phone 503 299 4222
A story by
Harley L. Sachs
I figured serving the country was a good thing. Freedom isn’t free and all that. The country needs you. All that stuff the recruiter said when he came to our high school. And there’d be a signing bonus. It would be a good start for college. I never had so much money. So my buddy Tony and I signed up.
I thought Basic Training was a kick. Lots of marching around, uniforms, lectures, PT—that’s Physical Training--and the firing range. I got to be a fair shot even though we never had a piece in the house. In the army we don’t call them guns. Guns are on battleships and we don’t have battleships in the navy anymore. They don’t even call them rifles. Your piece. Night vision. The latest.
Tony washed out. Too many Big Macs. He was overweight. Couldn’t run. Couldn’t do the pushups. He was a better shot than me, too. I guess he got all that practice playing Full Metal Jacket, the computer game. Great reflexes. They sent him home.
So one minute we were on an army air transport, new boots, body armor, full field pack, the whole bit. Seventeen hours later we were in Kuwait for more training. To get used to the desert heat. Man, it’s a different world over there. But you got to do what you got to do. Like they told us, freedom isn’t free and we have to defend our country.
When the commanders felt we were ready we were flown “in country” like they say. No convoy, just those big helicopters. Up, up and away in the dust and heat to Faluja. One minute we were in Oregon, then in Kuwait, then in Iraq. It’s tough to adjust. If you drive across the United States it’s gradual, like, you drive through the forests, over the mountain pass, into the high desert of Eastern Oregon, then Idaho and the great plains and you get to watch the landscape change, gradual so you adjust to the differences and it’s no surprise when you get to Chicago or Indiana. You leave the Oregon rain behind and after awhile it’s dry and different. But in the Army, well, it’s sudden. I don’t think I ever got there, mentally, I mean.
Someone said that it takes a year to move. Your heart is still at your old address and you don’t feel in tune yet to the new place, whatever it is. I know I never had time to get in tune with Iraq. That tent and the mess hall with the Indonesian contractors dishing out the meals was never home. There was just our unit and my squad, a bunch of what my grandfather used to call grunts trying to take care of each other, to keep each other safe, you know. Except you’re never safe. You never know when a mortar round’s going to drop in like an uninvited guest. BANG! Middle of the night, any time.
I think it’s psychological warfare, or the enemy are just lousy shots. Their plan must be to break you down, keep you from getting a decent night’s sleep.
My Dad was in Vietnam, but he never talks about it. He did one tour there, got a Purple Heart. He never wears a bathing suit, won’t go the beach, doesn’t want to explain how he got the scar on his back. All he ever said about the war was that if you kill somebody you lose your soul. He can tell. He says he knows the look. Like there’s a veil over the eyes. Never goes away. The horror.
I understand it, now. He was right. Dad always gives something to the homeless Vietnam vets begging on the corners downtown. They have that look, too.
I don’t talk about my wounds, either, especially not to the old vets I see at the VA hospital in their embroidered baseball caps and old clothes. At the hospital when I got back they asked me, do you have trouble sleeping, have bad dreams, loss of memory, anxiety attacks, can’t concentrate? Like one of those tests where you mark the little square for “all of the above.” All of the above. That’s me. It’s so common now they have an abbreviation for it. P.T.S.D.
That’s why I get disability. Sometimes a smell sets me off, like blood or a car backfires and I hit the dirt. Can’t work. Nightmares. Wake up screaming. I got a job driving a delivery truck but didn’t last one day. It was garbage day, all those containers people put out at the curb. Every one of them I thought was an IED, improvised explosive device, a bomb. I couldn’t drive. Just sat there scared to death, in a sweat, remembering. They fired me.
When my Humvee got hit I got a concussion, but I was lucky. Took some shrapnel, but survived. The other guys didn’t. You don’t know what it’s like when your best buddy is blown to bits or bleeds to death in the road while you’re trying to return fire.
You know how it is: the insurgents watch and set off the IED, then wait for a squad to come to the rescue so they can kill them, too, damned ragheads. When a helicopter is called in the insurgents disappear,. That’s how it is, over and over again.
There’s no front line and the enemy doesn’t wear a uniform, so you don’t know who’s who and you get to the point where you can’t trust anybody and you’re so up tight and scared and angry that you just do the job you are trained for. Someone fires from a house. You kick in the door, toss in a grenade to neutralize whoever’s inside, then go in.
That’s when you find the collateral damage, the women and the kids. It’s easier if they’re already dead. If they’re dying and you can’t do anything to save them you have to watch and remember forever,. Little kids. Women. How were we to know? We found an AK47 in the place, but anyone over there who isn’t armed can’t defend himself or his family and is as good as dead. We’d do the same thing if we were in their shoes.
Now I can’t look at a kid at the mall without seeing those children and smelling the blood and the guts hanging out of the torn bodies and wondering why I was there and how those people were a threat to my freedom.
They sent me home. Germany, Walter Reed, and back to Oregon. Since I didn’t complete my tour and was in Iraq only a couple of months before I was injured, they won’t pay me the signing bonus after all. I think it’s a crock, but go fight the government. The VA says I quality for only 70% disability. The physical wounds have healed pretty well, though I get therapy for my arm and I couldn’t march if ordered. The money isn’t enough to live on, like how do you pay rent and keep a car in this town on so little? For now I’m living with my folks, but my mother can’t stand to see someone my age just hanging around the house and watching TV.
With the medication they give me at the VA I can’t drink, and I don’t smoke which is just as well because cigarettes are so expensive. I’m trying to get into HUD low income housing, and maybe I can do that, but those places have rules. If I get panic attacks or they find me, like happened the other day, lying on the bathroom floor in a fetal position, I might get kicked out and moved into a group home. I couldn’t stand living with a bunch of retards. I’d rather kill myself. I’m not that desperate. Not yet anyway.
I’d like to find that recruiter. Freedom isn’t free. I just wonder, at times, whose freedom are we talking about? Not mine. That’s for sure.