As I write this, I'm in Kalispell, Montana, planning a day hike into Glacier National Park tomorrow on America's birthday. Ice-cut mountains, frigid turquoise lakes, snowball-colored mountain goats--these are all things I hope to be enjoying with my wife on the 4th of July this year.
Five years ago, I was in a much, much different place....as my journal from that period of my life reveals:
July 3, 2005: When I walk in the front entrance of the Division Main headquarters this morning, the guards at the front desk are having an intense conversation.
“No, man, I’m talkin’ about that cat from Tom and Jerry. Which one was the cat? I never can remember.”
“Yeah, Tom, man. Dude, that cat was always gettin’ his ass whupped. Just for once, I wish he’d win.”
“You don’t get it—it’s all about the underdog. When the small and supposedly weak is pitted against the big and strong, you always want to cheer for the little guy. That’s what makes those cartoons so great. Jerry has to win.”
“Oh. Is that what it’s about? The underdog?”
“Yeah. Jerry’s the underdog. Good triumphing over evil and all that shit.”
The other guy was silent for a few moments. “Still, I wish for once the cat would win.”
* * *Somehow, the general population, not just the news media, ends up getting our press releases and our e-mail addresses. Every so often, an e-mail will pop up in my inbox from someone in the heartland who doesn’t tote a camera or wield a pen.
Here’s one I received today:
Sent: Tuesday, June 28, 2005 5:57 PM
To: Task Force Baghdad PAO
Subject: Release A050627g
My friend was the one who you were referring to in this article. If there is any more information pertaining to this in the investigation, I would appreciate it if you would keep me informed. M____ and I have been best friends throughout high school and this has been a shock to me as well as my friends that knew him. He had died doing what he loved and it saddens me to know that I will never be able to make new memories with this outstanding hero and soldier. Thank you,
Task Force Baghdad Soldier dies
Task Force Baghdad PAO
BAGHDAD — A Task Force Baghdad Soldier died June 27 from wounds sustained during a small-arms fire attack in central Baghdad around 10:15 a.m. The Soldier’s unit was assisting Iraqi Police at the scene of a vehicle fire when it came under attack from terrorists. The Soldier was evacuated to the 86th Combat Support Hospital where he later died of his injuries. The name of the Soldier is being held pending notification of next of kin. The incident is under investigation.
This is the KIA which had caused so much confusion between me, our G-1 Casualty section and Corps last week. I remember sending up a ceremonial-like groan when I saw this come across the Sig Acts. Now, reading B____’s e-mail, that gesture seems so hollow, so plastic and artificial. This guy (who I only knew by three letters, K-I-A) was once somebody’s best friend, someone he’ll never be able to make new memories with ever again.
July 4, 2005: They’ve got the chow hall decorated in full red-white-blue orgy. Flags draped everywhere, red-white-blue crepe paper, red-white-blue silk flowers on each table. Hell, I’m surprised the eggs are still yellow.
At breakfast, instead of the pulsing R&B that always dominates the room and kills all hope of conversation, they’re playing music from the 50s and 60s: “One Fine Day,” “Our Day Will Come,” etc, The Third Country National DFAC cooks and busboys stand around grinning at us listening to the music. I guess they assume the 4th of July means nostalgia and nostalgia means the Chiffons and Bobby Darin and the Supremes. What they don’t realize is that for most of the kids in the chow hall eating their omelets and slurping their Coco Puffs and gingerly taking sips of their rancid coffee, nostalgia means Nirvana, U2 or Prince.
* * *
When I walk to lunch, I see a group of Third County Nationals clearing away the seven-foot reeds along the canal by the DFAC. A U.S. Soldier stands by, casually holding his rifle and smoking a cigarette while they hack away with their machetes. They work right next to the red, triangular metal sign that marks where an unexploded mortar buried itself into the mud a year ago. From Day One in the Army we’ve been told that UXO is not something you fuck around with. That’s why the reeds have been allowed to grow up around that short little stretch of the canal. Now, for whatever reason, they’re brave or stupid enough to go traipsing around in the hair-trigger mud.
I walk past them at a faster pace, unwilling to be part of their human fireworks display.By the way, if you're feeling an extra surge of patriotic blood in your veins today and you're at a loss as to how best to show your support for the men and women who are living and dying over in Iraq and Afghanistan today while you grill your burgers and swill your beer, might I suggest logging on to www.anysoldier.com and signing up to send a care package to our servicemembers? I know they'll appreciate anything you can send their way (well, maybe not the box of Godiva chocolates, which will be melted mud by the time they get over there, but just about anything else will be met with whoops of glee). I know this for a fact because I was the happy recipient of many a care package from members of www.anysoldier.com. Those lovingly-packed boxes were real sanity-savers for me during that year.
* * *The day does pass rather quietly, with only the standard number of IEDs, hand grenades and loss of life and limb. Nonetheless, it’s an exhausting one, both mentally and physically.
I come back to my hootch, flick the AC to Medium Cool, strip off my clothes, then sit in my underwear and slippers as I watch Rebecca on my computer. It’s a great movie, but I can't help thinking how petty all the troubles at Manderly seem. Mrs. Danvers is hissing in the ear of the Second Mrs. DeWinter, “Go ahead, jump from this window onto the pavement below.” How dangerous and threatening is that, when you compare it to getting into a humvee, rolling out the gate and having a car carrying 200 pounds of explosives and ball bearings plow into your convoy?
I’m sure the soldiers who got blasted with flame and shrapnel today in that attack wished they had the problems of Manderly!