There's a small charm that hangs around my neck. Many soldiers carry some small token or good luck charm- Saint Christopher medallions, coins, crosses, sometimes even hand blown glass hearts. Mine is a stylized fishhook carved and polished out of bone. The Maori call it Hei-Matau; they believe it will bring strength, peace and good health. My sister bought mine for me while in New Zealand this winter, and I've worn it ever since. The Maori say that with time, part of the essence of the bone and of the wearer will swap places, and the necklace will become a small part of one's self. Mine has certainly changed in the six months I've worn it- one side has become even more highly polished from the constant rubbing of my cotton shirt, and the other shows dark streaks along the pores of the bone and hints of color from months of sweat and dust.
I've changed, too. One of my friends told me I wouldn't begin to realize how different I had become until I saw other soldiers going on leave who had spent their tours in Kuwait or other less violence-prone areas, and that I would not realize it fully until I got home.
A part of the difference is a profoundly deeper appreciation for peace. One of the first days I was home, I lay on a strip of grass while I waited outside the store my sister was shopping in. I breathed in the clean air and closed my eyes to better hear the wind whispering through the trees. I opened my eyes again and watched the people strolling by, caught up in their own concerns and ignoring the quiet beauty that surrounded them. I jerked upright when a garbage truck dropped a dumpster- the harsh thump of metal sounded enough like a VBIED to jerk me back to Iraq.
The polished sheen of my necklace is there- one friend told me that he'd never seen me act more confident. I felt it before he mentioned it- I own the ground I walk on, and you'll have to go through me if you want to take it. I've made it through nine months in what was once called the "triangle of death"; that area of Iraq that last year saw nearly thirty percent of those serving within it earn the Purple Heart. I've learned, as I think most combat soldiers do, to truly "not sweat the small stuff". If a situation doesn't threaten death or injury, I can't trouble myself to care too much about it. The only things that bother me are the moments in which my reflexes work faster than my brain, and for a moment I'm "back there". It didn't happen to me often over my two weeks at home, but when it did, it reminded me of what I think of as my "dirty side". I don't say dirty as in bad, but as in colored by Iraq.
By the time I left home again, I'd stopped jerking the wheel when I saw pieces of junk on or near the road, but I was still cautiously approaching manhole covers and overpasses. The dumpster falling bothered me. The car backfiring startled me for a moment. The neighborhood kid dropping a string of firecrackers out in the alley definitely startled me (Boy, am I glad I'm not home for the 4th of July!). All those incidents were quickly over, though.
The only one that truly bothered me was while I was on a trip up to Alaska. One of my roommates from college was getting married, and I happened to make it home over the wedding. The bachelor party was standard Alaska fare: shooting guns (Don't worry- the drinking waited until afterwards!). We took a long drive out around the coast from Anchorage. The improved road ended at a small dirt airstrip. My friend took his little Toyota Camry up to about 40mph and pulled the e-brake, spinning us in a complete circle. Things started going downhill from there. We drove along a rutted, potholed road through trees and undergrowth that looked like places I'd been along the river, and turned to cross a small culvert onto another road. Some enterprising Alaskan had blown up a car on the narrow crossing- the rusted hulk of it and another vehicle lay bullet-riddled on the other side of the blackened hole in the dirt. A little further on, the road disappeared into a giant hole. Another bullet-scarred car sat in the water-filled bottom. We backed up and took another side road and parked. I got out and smelled rotting meat- the smell of death. One of my friends gagged, and I remarked to him that all we needed was the smell of burning trash to re-create Iraq. That was the cue for someone nearby to start firing single high-caliber rounds. Of all the things on the trip so far, that was the one I was actually expecting- it startled me less than it did them. Another friend said he hoped we didn't get hit- I said not to worry, because the rounds weren't coming our way. He said that sounded like the voice of experience. I just nodded. It made me feel better to pick up a gun.
People will think I'm crazy for saying this, but I'm glad to be back in the desert. Things aren't quite black and white, but there are fewer shades of grey. The danger is real again, not imagined like some monster in the night or a djinn conjured out of the air.
Life is real.