Fifteen Years on the Journey Home
Fifteen years ago today, I deployed to Iraq. In preparation, I bought my first digital camera1 and MP3 player2. I Tetris’d my gear into seabag so tight that I was able to fit a dozen books3 & three extra cartons of cigarettes4 inside. It felt a bit like Merlin’s carpetbag from The Sword in the Stone5. Leaving Camp Pendleton for Iraq on 26 February 2004 marked the departure point of a lifelong journey — trying to find my way home. “Home” is a state of mind, nearly an abstract idea at this point, rather than a place, always on the horizon of realization, while the terrain between it and me plays tricks with perspective to make it seem closer or farther away.
Some days I feel closer to home than others. I feel home is closest when I’m reading to my daughter, waiting for sleep to greet me in the darkness of my bedroom as I lie next to my already-sleeping wife, or feeling the falling snow kiss my face and cling to my eyebrows, lashes, and beard.
Some days I feel I’m unlikely to ever arrive home. I’ll smell the Euphrates as it cascades through Haditha Dam and feel its cooling mist settle on my face. I’ll taste the mutton, flatbread, cucumbers, and tomatoes from Khalid’s, the grungy truck stop along the highway near Trebil. I’ll hear and sense, but not quite see, the AC-130 flying over Fallujah. I’ll hear our interpreter singing his new favorite song, the late Seventies Barry Manilow tune Larry B. & I taught him, as he walks across our FOB. I’ll hear the adhān for Fajr signaling the end of another overnight watch. I’ll see the white conex box huts lined up in long rows, with one missing, extracted like an abscessed tooth; the socket never heals. I’ll hear that shot, and echoed in it, the mortars, the rockets, our outgoing artillery fire. I’ll feel the anger and confusion as fresh as its first day.
I made it back from Iraq. I took pictures at March ARB in Riverside to prove it. The VA periodically tells me I’m still here. Today I’ll have meetings with colleagues who know in the abstract that I once went to Iraq, but it won’t occur to them that I’m always still there in a corner of my brain. Really, I’m still on my journey; it’s a long walk home.
The first book I read from my cache was Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test. Deployments involve a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, so I read most of it as we prepared to convoy up from Udari Range in Kuwait to Fallujah.↩
I smoked unfiltered Gauloises at the time, but couldn’t get down to San Diego to resupply before we left Camp Pendleton, as I didn’t have a car on base at the time. So, I packed a carton of Camel Wides and two cartons of unfiltered Camels bought from the Pulgatraz PX. This purchase became significant only a week or so later.↩
Books are always first, you know.↩