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Keep it in the Back Seat

I haven’t been at this podcast or blogging thing for long. My interviews started last fall and I released the first episodes after the new year. I’d be lying if I said the whole process has not been very cathartic. Memories have surfaced that I’ve not thought about in a long time. I’ve unpacked some boxes that were neatly filed away, maybe to never otherwise be opened again.

On the other hand, interviewing and talking to people about my project has gotten me to confront some things that I never packed away. Events I can now write about that happened in Iraq or Afghanistan which will ease their way into the back door of my consciousness while I’m driving or taking a shower. They sneak up and tap me on the shoulder.

“Hey, remember me?”

“Oh yeah, you again, cool. You’re still there.”

“Yup, just hanging out back there with some of the other memories. They say ‘hey’, too.”

“Yeah, thanks for bringing them up. ‘Good dude’ move. So, uh, the devastating thing that could have happened never did, so are we good now?”

“Oh, totally, I just wanted to make sure I dipped in to remind you of your mortality.”

And then it’s gone. No flashbacks, no shaking on the floor, just in and out. When I interviewed my friend, Clayton Hinchman, one particular memory stood out. An event where I could easily have found myself in the same place as my friend, but I was lucky.

The night was hot, but all nights were at that point. No cool breeze, at least not the way you might think about one, but everything is relative. The temperature dropped in the evening enough so that you could stand to be outside, but not so much that you didn’t wake up in a pool of sweat. I wouldn’t spend much time in a bed on that night, though.

We had a fairly impromptu mission to set security for a house raid by blocking a road wide enough for maybe two Mini Coopers. We could only enter the road from a 5 way intersection in our battle space because it led to the Fallujah area and a canal running along the side isolated it from the rest of the area. The mission wasn’t special, rather routine for us at that point, yet the road was important.

We spent a lot of time learning how to secure areas and conduct raids on buildings, but the risk was in getting to where we needed to go. IEDs were easily our biggest threat. Any other place, I would have found a way other than the main road to get where we needed to go, even if that meant walking for a couple of miles. This objective was different. If we decided to walk in, we could only stay on one side of the road; we would get compromised by the feral dogs that were everywhere off the road. It was also lined with houses. We decided to take vehicles, turn off all lights, and clear down the road on foot.

Clearing was much more nuanced than you would think. We had to know what kinds of explosives we were facing, how the assholes with whom we were playing chess would set them off, and where and when they liked to place them. We had to know how an explosion would bloom, up and out, and if you could find a way to be below it when that would likely happen. You had to know your tools, measurements, radii, spacing of your people so the least number of them would get killed, but close enough that nothing would get missed.

This time I decided that my truck would lead. Three people per truck could get out and clear, leaving a driver and gunner on top to watch out. I cleared the canal side because only one person could and I needed to be closer to the truck for communication. This was another thing which I identified with in Clay’s interview, I never wanted to ask my guys to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. The two other guys from the truck teamed up to clear the other side together because two with night-vision goggles would have a better chance of finding something. I walked out in front of the truck, in the low space between the road and canal. The enemy we fought liked to use command wire detonation, which means they sat behind some dirt pile with a motorcycle battery and two copper wires watching us roll up on a spot in the road where the other end of those wires were connected to enough explosives to send us up to the spirit in the sky.

I really expected to trip across those wires. It was an ideal situation, some Joe-schmuck who needed $50 bucks to feed his parents could be across the canal, trigger it, and have 20 minutes to be out of there before we would even be able to try to see where he went. These guys also liked using the same spots, I really don’t know why. I guess it took a lot of effort to cut asphalt. Maybe they weren’t as motivated to kill as we always assumed, after all, $50 is $50. We just found a lot of their IEDs in the same spots. As I was dragging my feet to catch a hastily-buried wire, I peaked up and saw that I had passed one of the spots. Good, I thought, Maybe they finally learned.

But command wire wasn’t the only way to kill us, and they didn’t like cutting new spots. I peered over the road again, looking at it from opposite the way I was used to, and it was dark, very dark. The moon had not come out yet. My HMMWV trailed 25 meters behind and I told my driver to hold. I had to check the hole no matter how much I didn’t want to, and I had to see it from the angle where I knew every detail surrounding it.

I walked up onto the road, exposed, but it was dark and I had night-vision, in all its grainy resolution. I slowly approached the cuts, diligently observing as I drew every step closer, but saw nothing. I needed to get to the other side, so I walked around the spot, careful not to step on it in case there was a plate underneath the asphalt that would trigger the explosion. I turned to face it, leaned in closer, and saw it.

“It” was what we called “Christmas tree lights”, or a pressure wired initiation device. It is basically two, parallel wires that have metal clamps taped in succession so that if any of those clamps were crushed together, it completed a circuit for an electric charge to initiate the IED explosion. That explosion was a 50 lbs of fresh Iraqi boom-boom powder, i.e. Homemade Explosives; a special concoction of fertilizer and chemicals that had the potency to crack the hull of an Abrams tank, and maybe leave just enough of a person for a backyard GI Joe burial.

It’s hard to succinctly describe the following seconds, but I’ll try. I quickly scanned with my flashlight on it to confirm what I saw, because I had already cleared for wires leaving the site. When I knew without a doubt what it was, there was shock that seemed like a lifetime, but was really only half a second. I then muttered the only expletive appropriate as I envisioned an alternate reality of being pink mist should a stumble or short step had befallen me. As this happened, I took two healthy steps back.

Why was I not dead?

How was I still one piece?

I couldn’t linger in it, an entire mission waited on me. I called it up.

There was no safe way around the IED, the road was too narrow and there was not enough space, a consideration of its emplacement, I’m sure. We had to wait for the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team to be escorted to us and take care of it. At that point, the raid was useless. The entire area knew what was happening.

As I listened to Clay’s story again and again while recording and editing, this experience didn’t just drop in to say “hey”, it sat down in the back seat and remained there. It didn’t debilitate me, I didn’t melt, and I didn’t get stuck in an infinite loop of “Why or why not?” Its presence also didn’t instigate the thoughts it had before; a reminder that I could not be here now; my two beautiful sons being half of someone other than me, the memory of me erased from all except those with whom I was on a mission that night, my family, and friends. I continued driving, it sat behind me, quietly, observing the world with me. What it did, however, was adjust the lens through which I saw a few things.

My story, this story, isn’t important. It’s mine to carry around, my passenger. I witness my friends who now live on the other side of the reality I escaped that night, and they count every blessing they have. I know that I must do the same for myself, for I have more than I deserve. I see others in pain from the things they went through, far more traumatizing, and know that I can be there for them because their mind doesn’t work like mine, and they need someone to assure them it’s okay to get help. I didn’t have to leave a friend behind, frozen in time in a place I can’t fathom to have spent my last moments.

These changes in thinking and lenses through which we see the world are critical. Telling stories is one of the most important undertakings in doing so. We live in a population that does not know how to communicate with veterans, and is almost scared to anymore. A “thank you for your service” seems hollow, but it’s all some folks know to say. And honestly, we don’t help. It’s okay to share your experience. Americans should understand the cost of war and they should understand, in rich detail, the weight which their “thank you” carries.

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