It is no secret that veterans of combat tend to watch war movies with a certain skeptical eye. Hollywood does its best to replicate the experience of war, but far too often they fall far short. As a Marine veteran of Iraq who experienced combat, I find myself doing the same from time to time. However, I don’t judge war movies by their combat scenes. I’m not sure anyone could ever really replicate it and so I don’t judge those who do their best. Rather, I judge war movies for accuracy by their portrayal of the mundane. What they have Marines and soldiers doing when no one is shooting at them tells about 98% of the story of war. It just so happens that one such story was experienced by myself in 2003 Iraq. Hitchhiking my way from Nasiriyah to Al Kut is but one more chapter in the mundane story of war, but it is my story and I’m here to share it with you.
A Mundane End to My War
I’d start the story off with something classic like, “it was a hot summer night”, but since every night in Iraq was hot, we’ll skip the theatrics. I was Corporal with 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion 23rd Marines in late May of 2003. Yes, I was a reservist activated for Iraq so all the active duty Marines can sigh now and we can move on with the story. My unit got into the country right after Baghdad fell and found ourselves in Al Kut, Iraq.
We had just returned from a foot patrol in the southern portion of the city and returned to the Firehouse which hosted our position for about a month. The sun began to set, tracer rounds shot into the sky from a distance as was the norm and it seemed like it was just going to be a normal Iraqi evening. That’s when I felt a shooting pain in my side.
Now, I had not been shot, but the pain persisted and radiated. It got so bad that Doc came over to evaluate me and after some prodding and talking he gave me the news. He thought I was having appendicitis and my war was about to be over. I thought to myself, how lame, but what could I do. They loaded me up on a Medevac from the nearby airfield and off to a MASH style Air Force hospital near Nasiriyah I went. My war was over, or so I thought.
The Journey Was Just Beginning
I have to be honest with you when I say that heading out on that Medevac was kind of cool. Yet, that cool feeling was continually interrupted by the pain and how lame my ending to war was about to be. Long story short, I landed, they evaluated for a day and determined that I did not have appendicitis. You see, I had some sort of surgery when I was an infant and a piece of that scarred intestine had become inflamed. After a couple of days, I was all better.
Now, the Air Force knows how to go to war, because they bring everything with them. This airbase had it all. Meanwhile, back in Al Kut we slept out in the open on the concrete and our first shower in weeks was where we got the Iraqi firemen to open the spigot to the fire truck and a bunch of naked Marines showered around it. At this hospital, I had showers, hot chow, and a warm bed to sleep in. Not too shabby, so I live it up for a few days.
However, I started to get worried because I had not heard from my unit and I started to think they were going to send me home. That’s when fate intervened and I came across a Marine Staff Sergeant walking across this Air Force base. We talked, he said he was heading north and that I was welcome to come with him. I said yes and he told the hospital I’m leaving with him and that was that. It really was that easy.
A Long Road Back to War
From Nasiriyah, we headed north to a town called Diwaniya where multiple Marine units were staged. Once we arrived, I went from unit to unit to see if anyone was heading to Al Kut. Finally, I came across some bulk fuel Marines that were heading to Al Kut that night and so, I jumped in with them. The next morning I arrived back at my unit to the surprise of those Marines.
You see, they thought I was in Germany getting my appendix taken out. That’s right, my unit had no idea where in the world I was or that I was making my way back to them. With little fanfare, they said welcome back and my war carried on. Because my war carried on, I could tell you other stories about firefights, close calls, and all the exciting stuff that goes on in war.
However, it will always be that mundane experience as I hitchhiked my way back to my unit in the middle of a war that will always stick with me. So let’s touch on that a bit more and how it affects the public and even our fellow veteran’s perception of our unique stories of war.
There is a Unique Story Behind Every VA Claim
As a war veteran myself, I have to admit that there is a human element to me that wants to look at some veterans pursuing a VA claim with an ounce of skepticism. Even Marines in my own platoon who went on to pursue claims as I thought to myself, I know what they experienced and it wasn’t that bad. However, it is my unique mundane story of hitchhiking through Iraq that grounds me and prevents me from letting that skepticism take hold. At the end of the day, I do not know their story.
There are a million little micro-moments in war that go unseen that can create seeable and unseeable damages. I’m currently in the process of pursuing my first VA claim some 18 years after I entered Iraq. You see, at the ripe young age of 41 I have arthritis in my lower spine.
There is no cure for arthritis and though a healthy man shouldn’t have arthritis in his spine by the age of 40, the arthritis is now mine to deal with for the rest of my time on planet earth.
As to the cause, it is sort of like picking your poison. Was it the years as a Grunt carrying hundreds of pounds on my back for miles at a time that started at the age of 17? Was it the time I took a less than graceful hasty exit over the side of a five ton during a late night firefight in Al Kut? My back hurt for days afterwards, but in those days you can’t just go to Doc and say my back hurts. We all hurt for a variety of reasons and we just sucked it up. If my war had ended early, would that have spared me the next 30 to 40 years of back pain that I am now facing?
The Unseen is Just as Bad as the Seen
Finally, I’ll start to wrap this article up by talking about the unseen trauma that we know now is just as bad as any visible injury. Those injuries can also take place during the mundane. As a result of my intestine issue, I spent about 3 weeks with HQ platoon when I returned from Nasiriyha. I hated my time there as I longed to get back to my beloved 2nd platoon and picking up the chow was far from what I wanted to be doing in war.
One morning, myself and another Marine were getting ready to pick up the chow from battalion. Just as we exited the building for the humvee a large explosion went off. Instinctively, we stacked on the door and looked out. There I saw a young Navy Seabee who just encountered some unexploded ordnance. Tragically, he picked it up and it went off right in his hands. I saw him drop to the ground and it was over. Doc came running over, but there was nothing he could do.
However, it is not the visual image that sticks with me. Rather, it is the scream of the female Navy Seabee who is near him. I don’t know why, but the high pitched scream seemed so out of place, that it is unforgettable. I don’t know what trauma that scene caused for all who witnessed it, but the impact is likely as unique as each individual.
The Details Will Always Rest in the Mundane
That Navy Seabee who lost his life was building a morale hut, so that us Marines could experience air conditioning for the first time in a long time. He was building a morale hut and it cost him his life. There are a million more stories just like that from this history of war that remain little known. Apart from my writing, very few would know about my hitchhiking journey through Iraq. Those mundane stories tell each service member’s unique war story.
When I see a veteran pursuing a VA claim, I squash that small ounce of skepticism and remember my mundane story. I don’t know the full story of each and every veteran and the VA would do well to understand that as well. I have no idea if my claim for my back will be approved, but I’m fortunate to have a good career and insurance as a back up. I just know my arthritis and I are going to ride this life out together as inseparable friends.
I’m proud to write for Valor 4 Vet, because what Valor 4 Vet is ultimately doing is helping those veterans tell their story. No two stories are the same, but with a little help that story may land on the desk in a manner that gives each veteran what they truly need and desperately deserve.
The chaos of war rests in the mundane and thanks to Valor 4 Vet for being a part of each veteran’s story.