In 2010 I deployed with the New Hampshire Army National Guard to Kuwait. During this period the U.S. was engaged in the “pulling out” process for our involvement in Iraq, which required hundreds if not thousands of convoys to extract equipment so it could be used elsewhere. My unit’s job was to provide security for these convoys. With only four gun trucks we were expected to secure a convoy consisting of twenty to fifty tractor trailers. At times the convoy stretched over five miles long, which made security very difficult. Fortunately for us, the insurgent groups in Iraq seemed to be in a bit of a draw-down themselves. Attacks were very infrequent, probably less than one percent of our time on the road.
This story starts in Kuwait, where we prepped for the first day of a one week mission to northern Iraq and back. Moral was high, as the final destination promised some time at an Air Force base. If you don’t know anything about Air Force bases, they usually have a few luxuries the Army rarely provides, such as an opportunity for a dip in one of Saddam Hussein’s Olympic pools. The mission started on a bad foot, or a bad hand I should say. My gunner for the trip, Bryan, a six foot-three tower of testosterone and enthusiasm, managed to shut his hand in an armored door an hour before departure. It was just a minor cut and bruise, nothing beyond the scope of our medic, however my squad leader got a bad vibe and kicked Bryan off the mission. It was an unpopular choice and I didn’t agree with it, but it wasn’t my call to make. Looking back, this seemingly unnecessary and last minute ass-pain may very well have saved Bryan’s life, which was a good thing. I liked Bryan.
Dragged out of bed by the scruff of his neck, Paul joins my truck as a replacement gunner. At five-foot-three, what Paul lacks in stature he makes up for with unwavering resolve and a fuse shorter than a half-cooked grenade. Paul grabs his bags, jumps in the gunner’s turret, then my driver (also named Paul) takes us away in a thirty-ton rolling fortress. With that little hiccup behind us, the Paul’s and I leave the gate with high hopes and a cooler full of caffeine.
It was dark by the time we crossed into Iraq. Driving at night helped us in a couple of ways; there was less traffic on the road, and the temperature dropped to tolerable level. Being the vigilant gunner that he is, Paul attempts to use the thermal sights on his machine gun, but he’s too short (even though he’s already standing on an ammo can). I tell him to unmount the sight and use it by hand, then driver-Paul and I lay into gunner-Paul because he’s so damned short. This goes over about as well as expected. Gunner Paul goes from zero to one hundred percent flustered, but he’s a good sport so we’re all laughing and jabbing at each other before long.
It was at this point where our crew reached that one percent where something happens. There was a flash. A kick in the chest. Shrapnel in the window. In this moment my body instinctively tried to do two things at once. I both attempted to turn right to face the danger, and turn left to dive away from it. Fight and flight. What happened was that I did both at once, which manifested in an ungainly, whole-body twitch. The longest second of my life passed by, and I still had no idea what happened. I turned to the Pauls, and collectively we all exclaimed, What the FUCK?
Another second passed, and it we realized it was a roadside bomb. My guys are fine, the truck is fine, so I guessed we were fine. I called it up over the radio, letting everyone know we just got hit and we were okay. The other gun trucks were so far away that they actually heard the radio transmission before they felt the shock wave from the bomb. We roll straight through the kill zone and regroup some ways away. Me and the Pauls were a little shaken, but otherwise unharmed. Our beast of a truck took some cosmetic damage, mostly shrapnel, which funnily enough was concentrated on the gunner’s turret. Gunner-Paul was so damned short that even when standing on his booster can his head never crested the turret. Bryan on the other hand had a bad habit of standing tall in the turret, and at over six feet he most certainly would have eaten some of that shrapnel.
We eventually made it to Saddam’s pool and the mission was a success. The perfect mission, complete with the perfect roadside bomb. I was jumpy for about a month, especially with slamming doors and trash can lids, but that went away. There was something that didn’t go away however. During that moment when the bomb struck and I had that contradicting twitch, something broke in my head. It wasn’t until I got home that weird things started happening. In my sleep I would wake up in the middle of a violent twitch. Jerk left, and I wake up scared out of my mind. Jerk right, and I wake up boiling mad. This would happen every few minutes for hours on end, then persist every night for a week straight. I just called them bad weeks. They would occur a few times a year, certainly not enough for me to do something about it, so I didn’t. I learned to live with it. I drugged myself stupid with over the counter meds and slept on my hands so I wouldn’t punch my significant other.
As a man, and more so as a soldier, I expected myself to just deal with it. I had plenty of friends, family, and resources available but I never took advantage of any of them. I got really good at compartmentalizing my issues, locking them away so I could drive on and get the job done. I carried this habit for years afterwards, which left me feeling pretty numb all the time. Nothing excited me, nothing bothered me. I was turning in to a robot. However, every once in a while I would encounter a story that would strike one of those locked away emotions. I’d read a book and find myself in tears over unrequited love. I’d watch a dramatic movie and need three days of profound melancholy to digest it. I think too many of us are too good at locking things away, and I’m certain I’m not alone. Consuming stories that touch me in such a visceral way became a means for me to heal and grow. It’s why I started writing. I hope that through my stories I can reach people like me, grip the parts of themselves they neglect, and bring them to the light so they can be met with a raw heart. Thank you for listening to my story.