Chapter 12: Last Notes on My War

In our favorite story about the day the war started, I declare: “March 20”.   I was there.  What else is there to say?  I was there, and I distinctly remember the war started on March 20.

Cassandra insists with the same fervor, the same gumption, the same burning emotion that the war started on March 19?  She was there.  What else is there to say?  She was there, and she distinctly remembered the war started on March 19.

We are, of course, both right in our assertions, for each of us the moment was seared into our emotional memories.  We were just on opposite sides of the planet when we experienced our own reality, hinting at the power of vastly different, yet equally correct, perspectives.

Years after I returned from Iraq, I was rummaging through some old boxes and stumbled on a journal Cassandra kept during my deployment, leaving only more pain from the war.  I sat and read the journal from cover-to-cover. I could feel the pain of my absence, her power to push past her own unhappiness for the sake of the children. In every entry she wrote, her words ripped into my heart.

2-27-03

I’m sitting in the big room again.  The Bar is an interesting thing. It can make a grown man cry, yet if you pass, it has the ability to validate your entire existence.  Surprisingly, I’m not nervous.  I miss you.  Wish me luck.

Funny… Mike never knew what really happened that morning.  I didn’t write it in my journal because I never wanted him to know.  I walked into the big room at the Meydenbuaer Center in Bellevue, Washington.  I checked in, sat down, reviewed my notes, and was ready.  As soon as the main proctor starting outlining the rules, I broke down in tears.  I was seriously bawling. 

One of the little old proctors came over to comfort me, assuming I was cracking under the pressure until I responded, “My husband is headed to Iraq”.  The Bar was gracious and credited my fees, allowing me to retake the test without paying.  It was clear I was in no condition to take the test.  I told Mike later that I failed it for a second time 😐 He learned the real truth almost a decade later.

3-6-03

I was so happy to hear from you tonight, only to get off the phone traumatized because you told me you were going to be in a dangerous position.  You must be terrified.  I know I am.  I am not worried about you though, I know you are in good hands (God’s hands).  One of the things I do worry about is how that experience will undoubtedly change you.  Please know that I am aware that will happen and like other challenges we have had in our relationship, we will get through it together.  Be careful my love.

3-9-03

Your babies and I are cuddling together watching Tarzan.  It’s making us a little sad because it’s all about family.  And while we are 3 happy peas in a pod, we much rather be 4 happy peas.

You should really be proud of your kids. They really kicked ass at try-outs and whatever happens, they did their best.  Truly, I was so proud that I pointed them out to strangers at different times and said “that one’s mine.”  It’s been one of those weekends that you being gone really shows.  Everyone asks about you, both kids yearn for your love and attention, and I have to keep it all together.

3-19-03

War is on and I had to turn the TV off in order for us to be able to go to bed.

Alexes worked out with Bill today at the UW field by the football stadium.  It was sort of exciting.  It was raining again, making her workout even more difficult.  Afterwards she had a pizza party with her new team. It was so helpful to be away from the news.  We came home and went straight to bed (at 8:30!) without turning on the TV.  Goes to show you I can sleep when the TV is off if the only other choice is watching war coverage.  I hope to God you are safe and staying strong.  Love you.

P.S.  Everyone we have ever met has called in the last two days.  You are in everyone’s prayers.  Your mom’s church is praying for you, Mary’s (Schroeder) class is praying for you, etc.  You are a special person.  You have influenced so many people.

3-20-03

The kids and I went to protest at UW today.  We had a good time.  They sort of got used to people starring and taking their picture.  They proudly held signs that read, “Support my dad” and “Support UW students.”

Some might think taking my young kids out to a war protest was like taking them out into an approaching storm.  I thought it out carefully.  The protest was on UW’s campus so I dressed the three of us in UW gear.  We debated what to put on our signs and decided on the sayings they came up with. I figured any anti-war protester would find it difficult to argue against two small kids.  After just a few minutes of the protesters being around the kids, they all immediately showed respect and curtailed yelling anything that was offensive.  We experienced what is great about America “Freedom of Speech.”  The next day we received tons of calls from friends who had seen our pictures plastered on the front page of the Seattle Times.  I was very proud that the discussion of the protest included my husband, whose graduation from UW was delayed due to serving his country.times

Mike liked it too.   He wrote me saying:

Dearest Cassandra,

I received your newspaper clippings from the Seattle Times and carried them in my pockets for 3 days, showing every Marine here how my wife shows up at Anti-war demonstrations.  Master Gunnery Sergeant (the nice old guy from Ft. Lewis) said I was lucky to have you.  I wanted to tell him, “Yeah, No shit!” but thought better of it.  He even said he wanted to take our family out to dinner upon our return.  The clippings motivated everyone, even the Colonel wanted to see them and said it was motivating, the highest compliment a Marine can get.  I hope you have extra copies I can add to a scrapbook when I get home.  I was so proud of you and the children.  You 3 motivate me!

3-23-03

There is so much to worry about.  Today the news says Iraq has U.S. POWs.  I am not just worried about you but all those troops in harm’s way.  I am praying you are doing well.  Between yesterday and today I have had a fight with 3 family members.  Everyone is an expert on how I should feel and behave during this these trying times.  Your kids have been there for me.

3-29-03

The whole month of March has gone by and I have not seen you.  So many people ask how I am and wonder how I could live without you.  We are such a pair.  I wonder myself sometimes.  Some days I do better than others.  Days like today, I just hope it is time to go to bed soon so another day goes by.

3-30-03

Your daughter has learned how to read the scrolling ticker tape on the news to look for your Marine Division and unit.  She looks for causalities.  It took me a while to figure out what she was doing.  But somewhere she got your information and is obsessed with looking for you.  It is so dark but it makes her feel better so what can I do?

4-1-03

Your perfect son had his 1st soccer practice today.  I was very emotional and would have cried if Gene were not there.  You would have been so proud.  First of all, he is the littlest one.  Second, he tries so hard.  Third, he is very focused and a natural born leader.

4-15-03

We had two pretty good days.  I think due in large part to the fact that we got to speak to you briefly on Sunday night/Monday morning.  The kids and I have snuggled and not gotten on each other’s nerves at all.  We had a nice dinner after Mikey’s practice and there was no argument about going to bed.  Goes to show how when you are in our lives we work, our family is special.  When you are not we are a mess, literally.  Missing you is exhausting.

4-19-03

After a full day of soccer and relaxing with the kids doing a movie marathon, I have had it.  I am finding it harder and harder to write in this journal.  I write you letters of everything that happens every day so I am not sure why I am doing this.

Alexes has had a rough day.  She tries to be so tough. I am sure, like I am; she’s tired of being strong.

Mikey is worried that tomorrow is Easter and you won’t get real food.  That is the kind of stuff he worries about.  Although, he is having recurring tummy issues and I have come to the conclusion after watching his diet, that it’s stress.

It occurred to me around this time that no matter how hard I worked at being a good mom, I was never good enough to be Mikey’s dad.  Day in and day out, Alexes and I functioned.  Sometimes we were walking zombies, but we got the job done. We survived the day.  Mikey was still upbeat and positive, way more so than us, but he had a longing that still even today, over a decade later, I cannot describe. 

I often would cuddle with him at night, hoping to fill the void, but it wasn’t a mom’s love he needed, it was the male influence and attention only Mike could give.  It scared me to death that if something happened to Mike in Iraq, I would struggle to raise Mikey alone.

Mikey had an impressive memory, he never forgot the role Mike played, not just in our daily lives, but how he loved us.  He never just went about his day.  Instead, he constantly asked deep questions about Mike at war, knew it was dangerous, and because he had visited Mike’s unit in LA, and saw the howitzers and .50 cals., he knew those things were not toys, but weapons intended to cause damage.

I watched him literally be a “good little trooper” each day, but in the quiet of the night, during his beloved bubble baths, I would catch him deep in thought.  His eyes looking out into space, searching for answers.  His strength is something I’ll never forget. 

 

Meanwhile, back in Iraq…

We were really annoyed as the war ground to a halt.  Eventually, “really annoyed” grew into tangible frustration as we repeatedly watched our piss-poor section Sergeants take-up the same self-serving actions we had come to expect back at the Reserve Unit. Exploits for personal gain are tolerated in the safety of a drill center, but are the seeds of hatred in country. The sort of shitty, self-indulgent decisions to facilitate chasing girls stateside is far less threatening than chasing medals in combat.  A worst case scenario in the former only amounts to extra work for junior NCOs; in the latter, the worst case is death.

Our unit pulled one crappy duty after another making it apparent that we were little more than an accessory in the overall mission of the helicopter support group that we accompanied.  The scuttlebutt was that our CO insisted that we accompany the larger unit north, volunteering our support services.  We were relegated to little more than the nagging kid brother, begging the real players just to let us fetch some water.  We followed orders and did our job even though it was clear that our incompetent NCOs were content to push the bullshit downhill, onto our shoulders, while they (the crappy ones) spent their energy trying to improve their own levels of comfort.  Junior Marines confessed to us that these same Assholes had, on occasion, purposefully engaged Iraqi’s with hopes of instigating a firefight in order to rate combat ribbons. It was not until Sergeant Alpha-Asshole and SSgt Bravo-Asshole found M16 rounds intentionally placed around the Motor T shop with their names scratched into the sides that they gave up the idea that medals were more important than the safety of their fellow Marines.

We celebrated the small victories, though they were few and far between.  When the Alpha-Asshole first left Kuwait, he raised an American flag over his truck.  The unit proudly carried that flag across Iraq.  We all found comfort seeing the Red, White, and Blue fly.  Alpha was livid when the flag came up missing weeks later and insisted that one of us had stolen the flag, going so far as to conduct an immediate inspection of all our personal gear with the support of SSGT Bravo. He never did find the beloved flag, but then again, he never would.  The same day Eddie lifted the flag, he folded it neatly into a large envelope and mailed it home to his wife.

We were virtually defiant by the time the advance ground to a halt, at the Iraqi airbase at Al Kut.   The Infantry had taken the base maybe a week earlier, and had since held it for the strategic value; particularly its ability to accommodate larger planes.  Marine units supported by combat snipers and localized helicopter assets, secured the perimeter while Huey attack copters fitted with side mounted .50 Cal machine guns controlled the local airspace, ready to engage any potential threats.   Due to the security measures, the base grounds were deemed secure and we were allotted some down time in an abandoned bunker with little more to do than capture scorpions and camel spiders.

But, we were Motor T with our own trucks.  That meant we could break away from the cramped bunker, away from our hated NCOs, to explore the airbase.  We took pictures on the banks of the Tigris River and transported pogey bate (junk food) out to the isolated sniper positions in exchange for “Hoo-rah” pictures with sniper rifles from emplacements that boasted 360-degree views of the base.

We even explored abandoned structures seen from their lookouts.  On one such excursion, we stumbled onto a group of low-level buildings separated from the road by an iron gate that had been forced open, and was left as such to allow our easy entry. The driver swung the truck around the courtyard, pulling a U-turn to stage the truck facing directly towards the weakened Iron Gate, ready for a hasty retreat should it become necessary.

We were there to explore what was clearly the base HQ.  The infantry had already come through and ransacked the buildings, searching for any military intelligence they could find.  I climbed down from the back of the truck with several Marines from my inner circle, and we fanned out in smaller groupings of 2-3 Marines each, to search the grounds.

Eddie, Eric, and I first entered the central command room.  Tactical maps covered the walls. Desks were tossed leaving the desktop accessories strewn everywhere about the floor.  We looked around hoping to find anything of interest. There was little to hold our attention so we moved to the adjacent room.  It was a storage room for chemical warfare assets, lined with ceiling level shelves topped with Iraqi gas masks and spent gas filter canisters. More masks and empty filter canisters were thrown haphazardly about the stacks.

All 3 of us bumbled about the room, feeling far too comfortable in our surroundings when something caught my attention.  Amidst the debris on the floor I saw a length of cardboard that seemed out of place, almost too new to fit in the surroundings.  I picked up the cardboard and showed it to the other two.  It was an unmarked cardboard tube about 8 inches long and about 1-½ inches in diameter.  It would have looked exactly like an elongated toilet paper tube but for the fact that it was completely sealed at both ends.  There was also a string, about 12 inches in length that extended from one side of the tube.  Attached to the end of the string was a simple metal ring that looked like something that might keep a car key on a key chain.

“Dare me to pull the string?” I asked my accomplices.

One answered, “Fuck no”, while the other, almost in the same breadth, challenged, “Fuck it.  Do it.”

“Well, we seem split.  I’ll do it.  I don’t give a Fuck”, I returned.

There was consent, “Maybe you shouldn’t”.

The two began to exit the room, suddenly more respectful of the place, more sobered by the possibility of unspent chemical weapons left lying about the storage room.  That conservative thought may have passed through my mind.  If so, it was all to brief, quickly put aside to accommodate my descent into recklessness and my complete disconnect from the innate constraints of self-preservation.

I grasped the iron ring in my left hand and held the tube firmly in my right. I pulled the string, yanking it free of the tube.  The momentum of the pulled string caused the tube to drop down across my body, and towards my right thigh.  There was an intentional “pop” before pink sparks began to shoot wildly out of the top of the tube, still clutched in my hand.  The expanding pink sparks burst across my lower torso and thigh as I followed through with the extension of my arm, allowing the pull of the string and the descent of the tube to become the initial velocity that would transition into a backwards toss, towards the back of the room.  The sparks and the toss were joined simultaneously by a proclaimed, “Holy SHIT!”

Eddie and Eric were in “Oh, shit” mode too.  They saw the first sparks fly and were already running back towards the staged truck before the tube hit the ground.  Marines in other parts of the HQ emerged, startled by our outburst, also ran for the truck.  I was free of the tube, following their lead, when the storage room erupted in dark smoke, just before we heard the tube explode.

Luckily the driver remained with the truck.  The engine was already running as the last of us jumped aboard.  The trucked lurched forward, made its way to the gate, plowing through without slowing down.  We were on the road, heading back to our bunker, trying desperately not to look too suspicious as two Huey attack choppers made tactical approaches on the buildings, circled and took up positions overhead standing ready to engage any perceived threats, before moving on and out of sight.  More likely than not, the very snipers we visited earlier had observed the smoke and flames, heard the small explosion, and called in the choppers to investigate.

The trip back from our misadventure was spent dousing my trousers with whatever liquid I could find in the back of the truck.  I remember frantically pouring Kool-Aid from our water bottles on to the exposed portion of my trousers, trying to rinse away what I could only imagine was some wicked chemical weapon left behind by the Iraqis.  Mercifully, the tube was (probably) just a trip flare, left behind by the infantry Marines in their haste to search the buildings.

WTF?????  I am sitting in our dining room, some 12 years later, reading this, never having heard this story (cause I asked him not to tell me his stories) and I am about to throw my dessert plate at his head!!! There I was, struggling to stay sane; worried to death for his safety, and he was playing fuck-fuck games with Marines like he was at summer camp.  He’s so not getting any tonight.  #soeffingfurious.

Why did I do it?  What did the action of pulling the string represent?  It certainly wasn’t just the flippancy of “boys being boys at summer camp”.   Yet, it could not quite be characterized as hopelessness, expressed in an attempt to inflict self-harm.  No, it was not that either.  But, there was a real disconnect, a moment of insanity perhaps, that is nearly impossible to describe to anyone without a similarly traumatic experience in the same way men can never really understand the pain of childbirth.

I pulled the string because I mentally separated from any competing rationale not to pull the string.  The action was a reflection of where the war had taken me, or to be accurate, where the war had left me.  I was a little broken.

But, I was not done breaking. The bail of straw that broke my back would come from the CO.  He even concocted a painfully disrespectful name for his plan: Operation Wal-Mart, the Mother of all Raids.  A week after the “operation”, the CO was stripped of his command and shipped to the rear.  Word on the wire was he would face a court martial as well.  We never saw him again.

In the words of Forest Gump on the steps of the Lincoln Monument, “That’s all I have to say about thattt…”

There was no choice but to follow orders, as we were trained to do. For the most part, 99% of the time, that system worked.  But, 1% of the time, orders came down in the absence of communication with higher-ranking officers that challenged my humanity.  Without any outlet, I was left to internalize the frustration, my disappointment in the humanity of others, the blight on the Honor of my beloved Corps.  Eric, Eddie and I shared these experiences and these frustrations.

4-25-03

I finally got a letter from you today written well over a month ago.  It sounds terrible over there.  When you wrote no showers, no restrooms that is all I had to hear.  You wrote you were thinking about me during firewatch.  That made me feel very good because when I am up late I am always thinking about you and it is sort of firewatch.

5-3-03

We stayed at Cindy and Selwyn’s during the Snohomish Tournament.  Selwyn is a total sweetie.  He stayed up late to wash the kids gear for me.  When I woke up it was folded neatly on their bags.  He is awesome.  I could get used to him being nice.  Today we have a total of four games to survive.  I love that they have soccer to distract them but watching them play I cannot imagine being put under more pressure when they have more important things like your safety on their minds.

5-6-03

I have cried all day today.  Not from being sad but from being happy.  The USS Lincoln came home today and all day was reunions galore.  I was thrilled for all the families.  Part of me was sad because with all the flags, ribbons, hugs, kisses, and tears I still am half a world away from you.

It is funny how Seattle is super patriotic now.  A month ago everyone was out protesting now everyone is a proud American.  I guess I am glad, but also a little bitter that I had to endure their protesting in the first place.

5-14-03

Today sucked. There is no other way to describe it.  You called earlier and left a message.  I walked into the house literally minutes later.  I hate that!!  I sat around waiting for you to call back.  Hours later it occurred to me I had sat in the same chair for four hours without moving.  I am feeling so lost and helpless lately.  I am starting to worry that I am happy sitting in the dark thinking about you.  This is no life.  I am glad it is time for bed now. I have an excuse to check out mentally for the day.

5-15-03

After talking to you on the phone for a long time, I am glad we had a chance to work through some things.  It was nice to be able to cry and share my frustrations.  I felt pretty good when we hung up except for the fact the call cost $90.00.

5-25-03

We are so blessed.  There are such good people who are helping us through your absence.  Two different tournaments happening this weekend, on opposite sides of the world, families on each team pitching in to make it easier for me.

5-28-03

I am currently watching Akili sleep in our bed.  Selwyn and Cindy had a thing to go to at UW so I am watching their kids.  They come late from their function and are spending the night.  At 2:30 a.m., Selwyn changed every blown-out light bulb in the house.  He was so sweet.  He was worried I have let things like the lights go when normally I’d have everything neat and tidy.  I couldn’t tell him that I never noticed those lights went out.  Everything just seemed dark because you were gone not because there literally was no light.

6-1-03

March went by, April, and now May has gone by and I have not seen you one day in any of those months.  I have every late night TV schedule memorized because I have not been able to shake staying up late worrying and missing you.  Nothing seems to get easier, only more difficult.

6-4-03

I had a fabulous day today, you’ll laugh why.  My mom bought me the most fabulous pink leather handbag.  I love it.  The kids made fun of me because they said it made me happier than anything.  I guess maybe they are right. Why get so excited over a material object?  The truth is it is so decadent, something neither you nor I would ever spend money on.  I guess it makes me feel a little fabulous, like shoes make Carrie, from Sex and the City, feel.  I would never spoil myself with such an expensive thing but I suppose that is why girls have mothers.  While I still missed you like crazy my day did have a bit of joy.  That can’t be a bad thing, right?

6-8-03

Happy Anniversary!!!  We just got off the phone and I can’t believe even with oceans separating us, I feel closer to you than ever.  Fearing losing you during this time has put into perspective my life and the importance of what I value.  Thank you for saying all those sweet things on the phone. It meant a lot to me to hear that you appreciate my support.  You are everything to me.

6-14-03

The day couldn’t be filled with more disappointment.  Hearing it could be longer before you come home was so heartbreaking.  I took the kids out for a drive so we could all get some fresh air.  On our way back, we ran into the biggest disappointment of all; graduates.  UW graduates crossing every street by the hundreds wearing their cap and gowns.  I held back the tears, knowing how disappointed you are that your graduation has been postponed yet again.

6-15-03

Happy Father’s Day!  I have to take a moment to say how lucky I am that I had kids with you.  You are such a strong presence in Alexes and Michael’s life.  I love how they light up when they talk to you.  I love that Alexes cuddles up to me at night and says “I miss daddy.”  I love that Mikey always says “I wish daddy was here” when something good or bad happened in his day that he wants to share with you.  If this separation has taught me anything, it is what an amazing dad you are.

 

Finally, the time came for the unit to head back to the rear.  I drove across the southern border and caught myself thinking: “Wow! Kuwait rocks compared to Iraq.”  Two months later I had the exact same thought when I landed back in Southern California: America is the Promised Land compared to Kuwait.  I walked down the stairs, took a step onto US soil, dropped to one knee, knelt down and kissed the ground. Before long we were headed home to Cassandra and the children.  The pattern was complete: Seattle was the best of all.

I consider myself fortunate that our unit suffered no serious casualties, that we never came under enemy fire, that I never knowingly fired my weapon at another human being.  However, I am eternally changed by the knowledge that I would have, in a heartbeat, if it were necessary to save another American life or to return home alive to Cassandra, Alexes, and Mikey.  I drove across a country and saw things and did things that I hope never to see or do again as long as I live.

And again, I never came under enemy fire.  I met more than one young Marine with the haunting, “thousand-yard stare” of combat, and I am grateful to them for their service and for their sacrifice.

 

One Comment

  1. Gretchen Neale

    This is a story of four people, working their way through life together. These chapters are so frank and personal, they cannot help but highlight the parallels that can be found in all of our lives: love, loss, triumph, disappointment and perseverance. It is not possible to read this book without being deeply moved, as well as reminded of something or someone in our own lives.
    I remember the day the towers came down. Although my experience was different, this book reminded me that the feelings of confusion, loss and dread were shared by so very many on that day. Just as the subsequent war left many with conflicted emotions.
    Keep on.

    Like

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